Let’s start with the cons. I think Kurt Vonnegut summed it up pretty well:
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
On to the pros. Everything has a time and a place, and the semicolon and the colon are no exception. Every sentence should be the best version of itself, and sometimes that just might require some fancy, college-level punctuation.
Use the semicolon to:
· Connect two related sentences that just want to be closer to each other. If those sentences are independent clauses, you can’t use a comma; that makes a comma splice.
· Separate items in a complicated list. Semicolons bring intimate sentences closer together; prevent awkwardness, like comma splices; and give clarity to complicated comma-peppered lists, like this one.
Use the colon to:
· Indicate that what comes next is going to expand, clarify, or summarize the statement. Here’s a rule about colon usage: don’t slap one on a sentence fragment.
Back to the cons: most people use semicolons and colons incorrectly, and often confuse the two. In manuscripts by inexperienced writers, about eighty to ninety percent of the semicolons and colons I see are incorrectly used. Here are some tips to avoid being one of those numbers:
· Don’t use a semicolon to introduce a list (that’s the colon’s job).
· Don’t use a colon to separate two related sentences if the second isn’t expanding, clarifying, or summarizing the first (that’s the semicolon’s job).
· Don’t use a semicolon where a comma would be correct.
· Don’t use a semicolon between complete clauses separated by and, but, or, nor, yet, or so.
· Don’t use a colon redundantly (after words/phrases like including, for example, such as, etc.).
· If you can replace a colon with the word “namely,” you’re probably safe.
· Though it can vary according to different style manuals, avoid capitalizing the clause after a colon, unless the colon introduces a list comprised of multiple sentences.
· Only put one space after a colon or semicolon (and a period as well), not two.
· Don’t use either just for show. Many people use colons to look authoritative and semicolons to look fancy, but misuse/overuse/unnecessary use makes your prose feel weak and common.
· Here’s why we say “usually never”: if you’re uncertain whether you’re using it right, you’re probably not. Look it up!