Colons and semicolons are troublemakers. Not content with the clarity of being a single marking they have the nerve to mix and match other, more straightforward punctuation marks. You can be happily making your way through a sentence when suddenly you’re accosted by some strange hallucinogenic hybrid of a full stop and comma. I mean what’s all that about? It should be in a freak show, man!
In fact, colons and semicolons can be very useful indeed and the hallucinogenic experience for me is when I see some of the strange and bizarre ways in which many people use them. In some situations they are vital so it’s important to get them right, but in general terms they can help your business writing by adding variety of expression and increasing clarity.
The semicolon (;) is mostly thought of simply as creating a heavier pause than a comma but in fact it has two distinct functions:
- Linking sentences
Semicolons can link two sentences that work closely together in terms of meaning. As a starting point, we can consider two perfectly acceptable sentences:
20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year. 60% bought ours.
There’s nothing wrong here but the impact is stark and maybe even simplistic, so perhaps we need to consider other options. Because these two sentences express different aspects of the same idea you could also join them in a complete sentence using a conjunction:
20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year whilst 60% bought ours.
However, whilst this flows more smoothly maybe the point being made isn’t rendered as powerfully as it could be, so instead we can try a semicolon:
20% of customers bought StayDry umbrellas last year; 60% bought ours.
The pause here is lighter than the full stop but heavier and a little more dramatic than the conjunction. A semicolon can retain a better sense of flow whilst adding weight to concepts you want to stress.
Developing on this, you can use semicolons to join two sentences which indicate sharp contrast:
My brother loves modern art; I hate it.
Mel’s hair is dark and curly; her son’s is blond and straight.
This type of usage can be effective in surprising your reader.
People think installing a new boiler is expensive; in fact it saves you money.
Note that in all these examples the semicolon is linking two sentences. You can’t use a semicolon if either of the two statements is not a sentence in its own right.
I’ll briefly mention that semicolons should also be used before introductory phrases and in many situations with conjunctive adverbs (e.g. however, finally, therefore); however, in all honesty this usage has become rare now and readers may even be thrown by it. Consequently, here are a few examples, but I wouldn’t worry about this one.
Various reforms have been suggested for working practices; however there has been no agreement on the issue.
They searched everywhere for his car keys; eventually they gave up.
There’s plenty you need to remember to take on holiday; for example, passports, sun lotion and a camera.
Usually when writing a list you would separate its items with commas. When the listed items are themselves made up of more than one or two words, however, semicolons are needed.
The sports complex has excellent facilities: a swimming pool with a flume; a well-equipped multi-gym; a supervised play area for the under-fives and an indoor five-a-side pitch.
Colons (:) can do a lot more than leave young boys sniggering at the back of the classroom during punctuation lessons.
They generally act as a signal that additional information is to follow and have three main uses:
- Introducing lists
- Introducing quotations
- To explain, expand and summarise
As seen in the corresponding section for semicolons, a colon signals to the reader that something is to follow and so introduces lists.
There were three things about his speech I didn’t like: the beginning, the middle and the end!
Note that the section leading up to the colon must be a sentence! This is probably the most common error made with colons. This example is wrong:
Campers need: a tent, a sleeping bag and a camping stove.
‘Campers need’ is not a complete sentence. To eliminate this mistake we can either remove the colon altogether – it isn’t actually needed – or we can insert ‘the following’ in order to make the opening section a fully-functioning sentence.
Campers need the following: a tent, a sleeping bag and a camping stove.
In effect, the colon is working to provide the meaning ‘for example’, so if that or an equivalent expression is used then there should be no colon to introduce a list. In this case a semicolon would be used, exactly as shown at the end of the semicolon section above.
She enjoyed many activities in her spare time; for instance, tennis, photography and swimming.
The function of signalling that something is to follow also allows colons to introduce quotations, although if the quotation is short and flows with the rest of your sentence a comma is sufficient.
Our garden seat was praised by the Suffolk Garden Furniture Association: “The Relaxalounger is comfy, durable and a stylish addition to any garden.”
What to Buy magazine awarded the Relaxalounger 9/10, declaring it to be, “great value for money” in their August issue.
To Explain, Expand and Summarise
A colon can be used to divide one part of a sentence from another when the second explains, expands or summarises the first.
My life’s been turned around: I’ve got a job and a future.
I’m certain of one thing: I’ll be going with you.
The sales figures were very disappointing: 30% down.
A handy test to see if you’ve used the colon correctly is to see if you can substitute it with ‘namely’ or ‘that is to say’. If so, this proves the statements depend upon each other; if not then a colon is inappropriate. Once again, note that the first part leading up to the colon must be able to stand as a sentence in its own right.
Be aware that a colon is never followed by a dash.
Fashion vs Flexibility
When it comes to lists and quotations, it’s crucial to understand colons. However, it would be true to say that in recent times there has been a decline in usage of both these punctuation marks in other functions. It’s easy enough to avoid them with alternative sentence structures or even by breaking rules that very few people will notice anyway.
However, the most successful writing is able to use any tool in order to increase its effectiveness. This may be through conveying information in a more powerful way or perhaps by mixing means of expression so as to create a lively variety that keeps the reader engaged.
It’s certainly my belief that even though they should be used only sparingly, colons and semicolons can add both zest and sophistication to your business communication.