January 18, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 2

To read part one of the punctuation posts—commas and end punctuation—click here. For the other Back to Basics posts, click through the archives. I’ll also compile a link list at the end of the series for easy navigation. Today, we’ll be covering colons and semi-colons.


Giggle… Sorry. Can’t help myself. The colon (:) is a punctuation mark used before information that would prove, explain, or list elements of what precedes the mark. Confusing sentence, I know. I can’t really explain it any better than that, so here are some examples.

The colon introduces details of a fact stated before. (I’m not the best at colon examples, because I rarely use them in my writing, so take these sentences with a dash of salt)

As fantastic an actress as she was, Hannah could have tried out for the female lead in the play without anyone asking questions, but I knew the truth: The boy of her dreams was playing the male lead, and there was a kiss at the end of the performance.

I threw a fit about the cake for one reason: It was my birthday.

Voldemort had one fear: Death.

The colon also introduces description, defining certain elements of a set.

My dad has two pet daschunds: Dipstick and Jasmine.

We bought three movies today: The Big Lebowski, The Princess Bride, and Little Miss Sunshine.

A lot of titles use colons, especially movies and novels with subtitles.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
TRON: Legacy
Heaven is for Real:  A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Colons can also introduce speech, usually used to denote a statement said by someone mentioned earlier in the sentence (using an example from Wikipedia since I can’t seem to think of anything).

Benjamin Franklin proclaimed the virtue of frugality: A penny saved is a penny earned. 

Elizabeth always said the same thing: I’ll never marry a man that isn’t rich.

Colons seem to be rarely used in fiction, so I recommend using them sparingly in your own writing. You will see though, in the next section, that I use them after each subheading, an acceptable use.


The semi-colon (;) sees more use than its kin, the colon. Unlike colons, semi-colons are followed by a lower case letter, unless that letter is the first of a proper noun. They are used to separate items in a series or a list of items that contain their own punctuation, between closely related independent clauses (in place of a comma and usually, the conjunction and), and between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase. When I use semi-colons, it’s for rhythm. To me, a semi-colon has a shorter pause than a full stop, but a longer pause than a comma. I still follow the rules (I think), but it just goes to show that you can be creative with punctuation. In fact, after reviewing colons, I think I may have misused a few semi-colons in my book. Oops.


Valerie danced with four very different guys at prom: Daniel, the nerdy guy in our Trigonometry class; Reid, the walking definition of hipster at our school; Allen, the star of the basketball team; and one other boy that I think goes to the public school in the next county.

We stopped and visited several cities on our way to California: Tulsa, Oklahoma; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Flagstaff, Arizona.

Conjoining Independent Clauses:

The guy behind the counter at the skating rink asked me out on a date after his shift; I said yes.

The door muffled their voices; she couldn’t hear them properly.

I’m not a student; I couldn’t be if I wanted to.

Combining Sentences with Transitional Phrases:

Everyone knows that Mrs. Winchester killed her husband; however, no one would accuse a ninety-year-old woman, not in our neighborhood.

My dog has healing magic; though, he’d never prove it.

I’ve never had a drink of alcohol, even though a lot of my friends have; of course, I’m only nineteen.

So there are your basic usages for colons and semi-colons. Next up, dashes. I love dashes. Have a good day, and protest SOPA. Cheers.


  1. Punctuation is something I try to work on, espectially since I seem to have a penchant for using commas. :-)

  2. A lot of people use commas where they should have used a semicolon.

  3. Great post - because I always get these confused... and it's so simple now:) Awesome. new follower - am now a follower:)