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Colons and semicolons

By Mary Morel

This article first appeared at www.flyingsolo.com.au, a Micro Business Community website.

Confusion about colons abounds. Here we break down the difference between colons and semicolons so you can use them effectively in your writing.

In a nutshell, colons introduce, link or separate words and ideas. Semicolons create a stronger break than a comma, but a weaker break than a full stop.


In summary, think of the colon as a way of pointing the reader’s attention forward.

The most common use of a colon is to introduce a bulleted list.

This chapter covers:

  • Causes of the problem
  • Solutions for the problem
  • Recommendation

Some writers use a colon to introduce a list within a sentence, but you don’t need a colon if your sentence has a verb such as include or starts with for example or such as.

The ingredients: hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.
The ingredients are: hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.
The ingredients are hazelnuts, bananas, flour, sugar and eggs.

Quotes, dialogue and question-and-answer formats

The colon is used after a clause to introduce explanatory information, give examples, introduce a quote, and in dialogue and question-and-answer formats. A comma is often used instead of a colon in dialogue, particularly for short quotes.

The managing director said: ‘We’re all in this together. It is irrelevant who made the initial mistake.’

Colons and capital letters

Use lower case after a colon unless the following words are a quote, question, or proper name.

The question is: Who will be the winner?


Semicolons lessen the break between sentences that could be separated by a full stop and increase the break between sentences that could be connected by conjunctions such as and or but.

Connect and separate at the same time

Semicolons show a connection between two independent clauses and yet keep them separate at the same time. Oscar Wilde quotes are wonderful examples of such semicolon use.

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.
To be poor and not complain is difficult; to be rich and not complain is easy.

Although few of us have Oscar Wilde’s wit, you can use a semicolon in business writing or essays to link two independent clauses (i.e. two sentences) that are not joined with a conjunction.

The meeting ended at 8pm; an agreement had been reached.

You shouldn’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses, but you could rewrite the above sentence with a conjunction, full stop or dash.

The meeting ended at 8pm and an agreement had been reached.
The meeting ended at 8pm. An agreement had been reached.
The meeting ended at 8pm – an agreement had been reached.

Before some transitional words

You don’t need semicolons before conjunctions such as but, and or so, but you do with adverbial conjuncts, such as however, therefore and moreover. You also need a comma after these words.

The company was behind in its repayments; however, it promised to pay before the end of the month.
The company was behind in its repayments; therefore, the liquidators moved in.

You can avoid the need for a semicolon by rewriting the sentences.

 Although the company was behind in its repayments, it promised to pay before the end of the month.
The liquidators moved in because the company was behind in its repayments.

Separate items in a list

Use semicolons to separate units in a sentence when one or more of the units have commas.

The meeting included Jane Smith, economics adviser; Tom Brown, director; Sally Young, team leader; Jonathan Lee, employee representative; and Ann Parker, general manager.

Semicolons are also used in more traditional bulleted lists. In this type of list, each point has a semicolon at the end and the second-to-last point has a semicolon plus and.

Although they have a function, it’s possible to write perfectly well without ever using a semicolon. If you don’t like them, you’re in good company. US author Kurt Vonnegut said:  ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. ‘

Learn more with online grammar programs

Learn more about punctuation with my online course, An A to Z of Punctuation (A$39).

If you want to brush up your grammar skills as well, why not register for Biz Grammar: Business Grammar, Punctuation and Usage (A$79) and Grammar Terms (A$19.95)



An old-fashioned rule was that you shouldn’t start a sentence with however, but today however is often used at the beginning of a sentence to mean ‘but’, ‘nevertheless’ or ‘regardless of the fact’. When you use however at the beginning of a sentence, use a comma after it. However, the other alternative looks more attractive. As wellContinue Reading


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