The Pros and Cons of the Semicolon (and Colon) and When to Use Them (Usually Never)\

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!

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