Q&A: Colons and semi-colons

Each week, we chat about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, we’re taking that fibre-optic camera and exploring your colon and semi-colon usage…

Q: Hey there AWC. I’m having trouble with my colon.
A: You may have the wrong Q&A session. Perhaps your doctor could help?

Q: No, no – I mean punctuation! Guffaw. I’m always unsure when to use a colon and when to use a semi-colon, and what each does. Surely there’s a rule or two?
A: Or twelve. But yes, we can break it down in fairly straightforward terms. A colon (or “:”) has one main use in language today.

Q: Yes I know, as the eyes in a smiley face :-) And the semi-colon is the winky-face ;-) That’s their main job isn’t it?
A: Oh dear.

Q: I’m going to be quiet now and let you speak.
A: Thanks. A colon: a piece of punctuation that helps define, explain or list whatever came before it. So in that previous sentence, we used it to define what a colon was. Equally, we could be explaining that we teach writing courses in three Australian cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Perth – a list. Or we could use it to explain something. For example: this is an example of that.

Q: Wow, it sure gets around.
A: Indeed. But all of those uses have that common thread of advancing the sentence: by directly referencing or relating to whatever came before the colon.

Q: Hmmm, what comes before the colon. Is it the small intestine?
A: No, we’re still with punctuation, not digestion. A colon has a stack of other uses too. Aside from a writer using it in liberal ways in a sentence for effect (“Weather: windy and rainy – perfect for writing”), you’ll also see them pop up in clock times – “The dentist appointment was 2:30pm, but her flight to Amsterdam was at 4:20pm.” That’s a style guide thing though; here at AWC, we prefer a full-stop for that job.

Q: Okay, so the semi-colon? You just used one in your last sentence.
A: Yes we did. And it’s exactly as its winky face suggests – happy to have a foot in both the full-stop camp and the comma camp.

Q: “This one time, at comma camp…” haha. But you certainly wouldn’t want to be a comma in jail, would you?
A: Why not?

Q: Your sentence would never end!
A: Oh dear. So as we were saying, a semi-colon is more balanced with its approach to a sentence; it acts like a kind of makeshift fence. Its main job is to separate two independent (and usually equal or opposing) clauses; lighter than a full-stop and firmer than a comma.

Q: Wow, you’re good – two examples right there in your answer. Other uses?
A: Listing items, especially when those items contain commas themselves. The semi-colon removes ambiguity. “This century, the Olympic Games have been held in London, England; Beijing, China; Athens, Greece; and Sydney, Australia.” If we’d used commas, some may have thought we’d listed eight venues, not four.

Q: Final question about both colons and semi-colons. Do they require capital letters after them?
A: Great question and no, lower-case is the general rule for both. Only exceptions are things like that last example – proper names like place names. Colons don’t need capitals – the only time you should see that is in subtitled headings (Kingsman: The Secret Service) and websites because they just love capitals. But for everything else – no.

Q: Thanks for that thorough investigation of my colons. Actually, I’ve also been having trouble with my vowel movements…can you help?
A: Perhaps some other time.

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