Academic Tips and Tricks

All the help you need for good essay writing

Tips and Tricks 9: Colons and Semicolons

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I’m going to be honest, colon and semicolon usage is something I really struggle with, while I’m hot on apostrophes, these little bits of punctuation tend to baffle me, and I ofetn end up relying on commas and dashes.


This has to change, as a professional proofreader and copywriter this is an unacceptable gap in my knowledge, so I’m going to search out the best online sources of information and take you along with me as I learn more. Hyperlinks will take you to the specific srticles I’m quoting from, not just the site homepage.



Wikipedia succinctly states that “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” and gives the following examples:

There was only one possible explanation: the train had never arrived.

I have three sisters: Daphne, Rose, and Suzanne.

Luruns could not speak: He was drunk

It also states that colons should be used to introduce a subtitle to a work, so my BA Dissertation would correctly be named as:

What the Fuck?: An Analysis of Swearing in Casual Conversation


Sussex University‘s website also has a great list of correct colon uses, and states that ” the colon is never preceded by a white space; it is always followed by a single white space in normal use, and it is never, never, never followed by a hyphen or a dash — in spite of what you might have been taught in school.”



These are a lot more complicated, and certainly tend to baffle me more!

Certainly the most memorable guide on its usage that I found, was this comic by The Oatmeal

But Sussex University also strikes again with a whole page of helpful guidelines, beginning like this:

“The semicolon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

(1) The two sentences are felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
(2) There is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but;
(3) The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

Here is a famous example:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

A semicolon can always, in principle, be replaced either by a full stop (yielding two separate sentences) or by the word and (possibly preceded by a joining comma). Thus Dickens might have written:

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. or
It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.”

They also list this sentence as an incorrect semicolon usage:

“In 1991 the music world was shaken by a tragic event; the death of Freddy Mercury”

The sentence above does not contain two halves which could stand independantly as sentences ‘the death of Freddy Mercury’ is not a sentence in itself, so the sentence above should have a colon not a semicolon.


Bristol University has a handy quiz to help you grasp semicolon usage, it gives you good feedback explaining why you gave the right or wrong answer. However, it only tests your knowledge regarding semicolon usage within sentences, and there are a few other uses of the semicolon I wil go on to explain.


Semicolons can be used in lists where each example in the list contains a couple of pieces of information, such as:

“I have recently visited Topeka, Kansas; Cheboygan, Michigan; and Honolulu, Hawaii.”

or “In the meeting today we have Professor Wilson, University of Barnsley; Dr Watson, University of Barrow in Furness; Colonel Custard, Metropolitan Police and Dr Mable Syrup, Genius General, University of Otago, New Zealand.”

Both of the above examples would become very confusing if all the semicolons were replaced with commas!


Grammar Girl does a great job of explaining how semicolons can be used to emaphasise relatedness between sentences, and to avoid having too many short sentences.


I hope the above links helped you as much as they’ve helped me.


Author: Liz

Hi, I'm Liz. I like easy crafts, photography, cooking, lifestyle blogs and YouTube videos. I work as a part-time proofreader and am currently studying for a PhD in linguistics.

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