CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

Colons

Yeah, not the ones in your body.

Colons and semicolons are punctuation marks that serve a writer in a variety of different ways. They appear often in all forms of published writing—both print and digital—and are highly useful in labelling and separating.

Colon

A colon (:) can be used to precede a list in a couple of style variations.

Casual styles are very individual but are usually more relaxed than the lists you may see in a corporate document.

Henrietta picked up her shopping list and wrote:
oranges
apples
bananas
potatoes
cucumbers

OR

Henrietta picked up her shopping list and wrote: oranges, apples, bananas, potatoes and cucumbers.

As you can see, there is no punctuation between or concluding the list in the first example and the punctuation used in the second example is nice and simple. Were you to look at a government or corporate document, however, you will notice that the differences will be very distinct, mostly due to the complexity of the content.

Members of Her Majesty’s Parliament include: Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service—Rt Hon David Cameron MP; Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council (with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform)—Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP; and First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons—Rt Hon William Hague MP.

Note that I have used semicolons in place of commas to separate one item from the next in the list. More on those later!

Colons can also be used in a quotation or an expanded element of a sentence, often a description.

Stephen Fry once said: ‘Education is the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars.’

Breakfast: cereal or bagel. Morning tea: apple, if I have time. Lunch: sandwich. Dinner: leftovers.

‘I had an eventful week: I visited the doctor three times, the dentist, the bank, the post office and the library twice each, not to mention the vet to pick up the cat! I’m knackered!’

After two more days had passed and I saw not a single soul, I accepted the obvious truth: aliens had abducted everyone and I was the last human being on Earth.

Note that the next word after a colon is not capitalised in all these examples bar the quote from Stephen Fry. This is due to the fact that I follow the British English style rather than the American English. In British English, the word that follows the colon is primarily displayed in lower case as it is a continuation of the same sentence. The reason why Stephen Fry’s quote does not adhere to this is because what follows the colon is a direct quote. Direct quotations always begin with capitalised letters when they follow colons, unless the quote itself does not begin at the beginning of a sentence. For example:

Stephen Fry once said that education is: ‘…the sum of what students teach each other between lectures and seminars.’

However, it can be argued that the colon is now unnecessary here due to the evolution of our language and can be removed. This is a stylistic choice and entirely up to you—as long as you are consistent, of course!

When the section following the colon can stand up on its own as a whole sentence—what is referred to as an appositive independent clause, an element running parallel to the first element—American English users generally capitalise the first word following the colon.

There was nobody at the train station this morning: The trains were not running.

While this could be considered a mere explanation clause and, therefore, adhere to the lower case rule, in the American English style, both remain grammatically correct. In British English, however, the lower case rule should be enforced. As this is a matter of style, I would recommend sticking to the style that is indigenous to your locality.

A colon can also be used in the expression of a ratio or proportion and time, separating hours from minutes.

‘R2 says that the chances of survival are 725:1.’

Mix the cordial concentrate with water at a ratio of 1:4.

The train will arrive at precisely 6:57am.

It is also a common occurrence to see books, movies and game titles separated with colons to indicate that the specific volume or instalment is part of a series or one of multiple versions.

The Oxford English Dictionary: Fourth Edition

X-Men: The Last Stand

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

In addition to all these things, a colon can also be used to indicate speech in some forms of writing such as transcripts, subtitling, plays, radio scripts and captioning.

DOCTOR: Amy Pond, there’s something you’d better understand about me ‘cause it’s important, and one day, your life may depend on it—I am definitely a mad man with a box!

FELICITY: I’ll kill you for this, Simon Gascoyne!

MYSTERIOUS MAN: I can save her.

In these cases, capital letters following the colon is expected, as it is a labelling effect of direct speech and the words Doctor, Felicity and Mysterious Man have no bearing on the sentences themselves.

Other instances where you might find a colon include reminders or alerts, forms where you are expected to fill in details or letters providing information. These can vary greatly from one to the other but I tend to see more capitalisation in these. For example:

Reminder: Feed the cat.

Breed: Grey/ginger tabby.

Estimated length of operation: 2 hours.

Caution: Keep out of reach of children!

I’m sure I’ve left out a few instances where colons can be used. If so, I’d love to hear from you!

Colons do a lot of work! So what is left for his cousin the semicolon to do?

Semicolon

The semicolon (;), sometimes written semi-colon, is often used to separate items in a list that is more complex and requires a separation tool more powerful than a comma.

As I demonstrated earlier, in the example of the complex list, a semicolon is often preferable to commas. Here, since each item contains commas, we should use a semicolon rather than a comma to separate each item in the list. This creates clarity and makes it easier to read. Note that the list begins with our friend the colon.

Members of Her Majesty’s Parliament include: Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service—Rt Hon David Cameron MP; Deputy Prime Minister, Lord President of the Council (with special responsibility for political and constitutional reform)—Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP; and First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons—Rt Hon William Hague MP.

Sometimes, a semicolon will begin a list and commas will then be used to separate items. For example:

‘We have many different kinds of cats at the shelter; tabbies, calicos, tortoiseshells, shorthairs, longhairs and even the odd pedigree!’

Occasionally, a list will appear in a corporate environment in the following style, using colons in place of commas:

The shelter housed the following kinds of cats:
Tabbies;
Calicos;
Tortoiseshells;
Shorthairs;
Longhairs; and
The occasional pedigree.

More on lists here.

Beyond its use in lists, a semicolon can also aid a writer in the separation of two or more elements of a sentence when either a comma or full stop does not quite do the job. As in the examples above with the colon, a semicolon can link two parallel clauses to create one overarching idea within a single sentence. Here, the two parts of the sentence have equal weight, where using a comma may cause one to outrank the other.

The stormy season had arrived; the sun would not be seen for days.

Antonia had one cat; Caitlan, three.

Here, the two elements of the sentence directly relate to each other, yet separating them into two separate sentences would break that unity, causing confusion. If I had used a comma instead, the second example would look like this:

Antonia had one cat, Caitlan, three.

Apart from the fact that it insinuates that Caitlan is the name of Antonia’s cat, it also skews the entire sentence, making three hang on at the end on its own with no apparent relation to anything. Using the semicolon separates the two sections clearly, while also maintaining meaning.

Lastly, you can use semicolons before instead or however to better separate two sections of a sentence.

My cat did not eat her food; instead, she caught a rather large lizard and devoured it on the doormat.

Because I was injured, I did not go to training; however, I did make it to the game on the weekend.

Here, it is clear that instead refers to the catching of the lizard and however refers to the fact that I managed to get to the game. With commas, it can be unclear.

In conclusion, I personally use colons only in my writing of articles, never in my narrative writing. However, I do enjoy using the odd semicolon in prose.

Happy writing!

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