Ever wonder how to use colons and semicolons? In this edition of PEGblog, Lyn Aecer attempts to win over some editors to the use of these marks while they improve texts.
This article appeared under the heading Colons and semicolons: More honoured in the breach than the observance? in PEGboard October 2018.
Many a time and oft I encounter writers and editors who openly admit to being ignorant of the purpose or correct use of the colon and the semicolon or of being afraid to use either. Then there are those who use them incorrectly. Most authors opt for the ‘safer’ comma or full stop. The guides on punctuation, however, advocate the use of the colon and the semicolon not only for their ability to refine or embellish writing but also to ensure that an author’s meaning or intention is conveyed clearly through the adept use of these two forms. They are not identical, though: the colon is the weightier of the two. This article is an attempt, then, to win over some editors to the use of these marks while they improve texts.
The colon is a mark of anticipation (Venolia 1995:12), what Lukeman (2007:76) calls ‘the magician of the punctuation world. It holds the audience in suspense, waits until just the right moment, then voilà: it pulls back the curtain to reveal the result.’ Put differently, in the words of the inimitable HW Fowler, the colon’s function is ‘to deliver the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words’ (cited in Carey 1983:35). Gowers adds that ‘it is still useful as something less than a full stop and more than a semicolon’ (1962:239).
Here are some examples of its usefulness:
- Use a colon before a whole quoted sentence but not before a quotation that begins in mid-sentence (The Economist 2018:120) and not when the introductory sentence ends in ‘that’:
She said: ‘It will never work.’
He retorted that it had ‘always worked before.’
The learned judge also pointed out that ‘section 2(b) of the Act applies in this particular matter.’
- Use a colon as an introduction before a list, summary, long quotation or final clause that explains or amplifies what precedes the colon (Carey 1983:35-36; Gowers 1962:239, 250; Lukeman 2007:78, 80; Venolia 1995:12-14).
She had come here in 1949 after losing everything in China: her mother and father, her family home, her first husband and two daughters, twin baby girls.
In some cases the executive carries out most of the functions: in others the delegation is much less extensive.
News reaches a national newspaper from two sources: the news agencies and its own correspondents.
- Use a colon following the words ‘as follows’ or ‘the following’ (Carey 1983:36; Venolia 1995:13):
The ingredients of a diplomat’s life are as follows: protocol, alcohol, and Geritol.
The following articles were found in his pockets: a wallet containing notes and small change, an empty brandy flask, a tobacco pouch, two pipes and a matchbox.
- Use a colon to create a climax or threshold between two parts of a sentence (Lukeman 2007:77) to set the stage for a revelation, a summary or a conclusion. Compare:
I grabbed my bag, put on my coat, and stepped out of the door, as I wasn’t coming back.
I grabbed my bag, put on my coat, and stepped out of the door: I wasn’t coming back.
The living room was immense, the kitchen spectacular, the two billiard rooms offered a water view and the six fireplaces were always lit. It was a palace.
The living room was immense, the kitchen spectacular, the two billiard rooms offered a water view and the six fireplaces were always lit: it was a palace.
A final word from Lukeman (2007:88-89):
‘… The colon, when used properly, tends to muscle other punctuation out of the way. … In order to get maximum effect out of a colon, the text that precedes it should ideally be unimpeded by other punctuation, while the text that follows should flow unimpeded to the sentence’s end.’
Of this mark, The Economist says: ‘The much-reviled semicolon is often worth an airing’ (2018:122). Gowers is charitable towards it: ‘Do not be afraid of the semicolon; it can be most useful. It marks a longer pause, a more definite break in the sense, than the comma; at the same time it says … [the] semicolon is a stronger version of the comma’ (1962:258). For example:
The scheme of work should be as comprehensive as possible and should include gymnastics, boxing, wrestling and athletics; every effort should be made to provide facilities for swimming.
The semicolon provides a stronger break than a comma, a weaker one than a full stop, but its very form (;) betrays the fact that it is both full stop and comma. The comma would be incorrect without the insertion of a conjunction; the full stop creates too much of a disconnection between related ideas or facts. Best thought of as a bridge between two complete sentences, making them one, the semicolon is a useful punctuation mark that a careful writer employs to good effect (Carey 1983:37; Gowers 1962:258; Lukeman 2007:56; The Economist 2018:124; Venolia 1995:38-40). The passage below illustrates the effectiveness of the semicolon as opposed to the full stop or the comma (Carey 1983:42):
The strikers agreed to resume work if a tribunal were formed to investigate their grievances; if on such tribunal the workers were adequately represented; if an undertaking were given that there would not, either now or at any future time, be any victimisation; and finally if it were guaranteed that, when the recommendations of the tribunal were announced, they would be put into force without delay.
The semicolons here cannot be replaced with full stops because they separate a series of subordinate clauses. Commas could be an option, but semicolons are preferred because the clauses are rather lengthy and some of them contain commas of their own. The semicolons serve to pick out the different conditions a little more clearly.
These are some instances where the semicolon is most useful:
- Use a semicolon between independent clauses closely related in sense when they are not joined by a conjunction (but, because, however). In all of the sentences below, a full stop could have been used, but the effect might have been too jerky and disjointed, especially if there were other short sentences immediately before or after them (Carey 1983:38; Lukeman 2007:60; Venolia 1995:38):
The believer is happy; the doubter is wise. – Hungarian proverb
The frog is a unique creature; it lives both in water and on land.
The candidate could not be said to give a very good impression; he looked as though he needed a good wash.
Carey (1983:40) makes a very useful point about using semicolons to mark off clauses introduced by conjunctions: here, it is necessary to distinguish between coordinating (and, or, but, yet) and subordinating (as, since, because, when, if) conjunctions. This is because the semicolon can be used appropriately before coordinating conjunctions since an extra pause is needed. However, it is rarely used before subordinating conjunctions because a subordinate clause, being closely dependent on the main clause, generally needs to be closely linked to it.
- Use a semicolon between independent clauses that are long or contain commas or to separate long or complicated items in a series, as in the passage below (Carey 1983:41; Lukeman 2007:59-60; Venolia 1995:39):
Slipping and floundering for hours at a snail’s pace through mud and slime, long files of men went to and fro – carrying-parties with food, water, ammunition of all kinds, engineer and ordnance stores; forward observation parties with their wire and telephone equipment; stretcher-parties piteously burdened, reliefs bulky with arms and full pack and perhaps a parcel from home, struggling after the lightly loaded guide.
- Use a semicolon instead of the weak comma to join two full or independent clauses (the ‘comma splice’):
The company is doing some work on this, it may need supplementing.
The company is doing some work on this; it may need supplementing.
The postgraduate teaching hospitals are essentially national in their outlook, their geographical location being merely incidental.
The postgraduate teaching hospitals are essentially national in their outlook; their geographical location is merely incidental.
- Use a semicolon between the independent clauses of a compound sentence when they are linked by the following adverbs: accordingly, however, indeed, therefore (Venolia 1995:39):
Projections were gloomy; however, sales skyrocketed.
The planned route was impassable; accordingly, the group investigated an alternative way.
- Use a semicolon to distinguish phrases listed after a colon only if commas will not do the job clearly (especially if there are already subordinate clauses separated by commas) (The Economist 2018:124; Venolia 1995:38-39):
They agreed on only three points: the ceasefire should be immediate; it should be internationally supervised, preferably by the AU; and a peace conference should be held, either in Geneva or in Ouagadougou.
- Use the semicolon to economise on words (Lukeman 2007:61). Compare:
It is not possible to pinpoint that as the cause of his allergic reaction, because there are several proven triggers.
It is not possible to pinpoint that as the cause of his allergic reaction; there are several proven triggers.
‘The semicolon elevates punctuation from the utilitarian to the luxurious. Business memos do not need semicolons. Creative writers do’ (Lukeman 2007:58).
Generally, the colon doesn’t combine well with semicolons (Lukeman 2007:90). A semicolon could possibly precede a colon, but that would probably lead to a sentence that reads awkwardly, so we have to resign ourselves to the fact that ‘there is rarely room for both of these giants in the universe of one sentence’ (Lukeman 2007:90).
The colon even detracts from the power of the full stop. For a full stop to have maximum power, readers shouldn’t be slowed at any point throughout the sentence, but the colon does just that, stealing the show (Lukeman 2007:89-90). Compare:
Every time I try to speak she interrupts me.
Every time I try to speak she does it again: she interrupts me.
Whether you edit fiction or non-fiction, I hope that this exposé of these two neglected but important marks has given you food for thought. And that when next you improve an author’s words, you’ll be able to find appropriate opportunities to convert their mundane commas and full stops into artful semicolons and colons.
Carey, GV 1983 Mind the stop. London: Penguin.
The Economist 2018 (12th ed) The Economist style guide. New York: Public Affairs.
Gowers, E 1962 The complete plain words. London: Penguin.
Hartley, C 1818 Principles of punctuation. London: Effingham Wilson.
Lukeman, N 2007 The art of punctuation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Truss, L 2004 Eats, shoots and leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York: Gotham Books.
Venolia, J 1995 Write right! A desktop digest of punctuation, grammar and style (3rd ed). Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.