When a comma is too wimpy and a period is too severe, you need a colon or a semicolon—but which?
Jeeves the Colon
A colon is like a butler: it introduces things. It holds open the door and says, “Mrs. Herringbone to see you, Ma’am.” The sight of a colon raises expectations for what is to follow.
- A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.
- Only one creature in these woods burbles like that: the jabberwock.
- Your plan failed, Count Svitavsky, because you forgot one thing: Fifi is allergic to jujubes.
A colon can introduce a list, an example, an explanation, or a conclusion, but what comes before the colon must be able to stand on its own as a sentence. If you find yourself putting a colon after a verb or a preposition, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
- Wrong – Their big night consisted of: a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
- Right – Their big night consisted of a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
- Wrong – Over the course of the evening they stole: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
- Right – Over the course of the evening they stole hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
- Right – They stole only items beginning with an H: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
The colon can also be found after the salutation in formal letters, before a character’s dialogue in plays and scripts, after the Q’s and A’s in Q & A, between a title and subtitle, and before a long quotation.
- To whom it may concern:
- Rick: Here’s looking at you, kid.
- Q: How do porcupines have sex? A: Very carefully.
- “Margarine: Why It’s Wrong”
- In a passage marked with two stars for being of particular literary merit, Stella Gibbons wrote:
Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Semicolon!
When you have two sentences that are so closely related they beg not to be separated, or that proceed in parallel like well-rehearsed synchronized swimmers, join them with a semicolon. But be sure the two clauses are independent (that is, able to stand on their own as sentences).
- I looked in the mailbox; there was no squid.
- Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.
Commas would be inadequate in the examples above, causing painful comma splices without an and or but to help them (more on this here), but a semicolon is made of stronger stuff. It’s a kind of Supercomma, able to accomplish feats mere commas cannot. When your sentences are long and complicated, especially if they’re already liberally sprinkled with commas, use a semicolon where you would normally use a comma. Commas can separate phrases and keep them from squabbling, but when your party gets out of hand, it’s time to call in the bouncers—semicolons.
- Outside the agent’s door stood an astronaut, sweating under his helmet; a ballerina, patting her bun and fluffing her tutu; a nun, whose wimple was in danger of poking someone’s eye out; and a sasquatch, whose oversized footprints could be seen up and down the hall.
- You could scale the wall with your grappling hook and creep through the mansion on silent feet, unnoticed by the sleeping baron, until you found the hidden room and, using your hard-won skills, opened its lock with your little picks; but you still wouldn’t have a clue how to get inside the safe.
A semicolon is often used before expressions like that is (or i.e.), for example (or e.g.), however, therefore, indeed, and namely.
- You’ve eaten the last olive; however, I won’t hold it against you.
- I am full of consideration for others; for example, I never practise the tuba after midnight.
- Her new fairy wings were a great success; that is, they worked brilliantly until she hit the ground.
However, don’t bring in a semicolon if you don’t need the extra muscle.
- The ranks of the fearsome Termagant Army were filled by former ladies of the evening, i.e., prostitutes.
- The new lord had a phobia of porcelain figurines, therefore we hid all the bric-a-brac in the cellar.
A judicious use of colons and semicolons can separate elegant prose from mediocre muddle. Now that you know what each mark does, you can feel confident when pulling them out of your writer’s toolbox. Go forth and punctuate!