My Name is Colon, and I Am Not a Semicolon

Published on 07 Dec, 2016

Generic Grammar

For some writers, a colon and a semicolon mean the same thing. It shouldn't be.

That’s like calling a cow and a tiger the same animal. 

Although they sound similar, their functions are very different. A semicolon provides a break that is more powerful than a comma but not the end as indicated by a period. 

On the other hand, a colon is used before introducing an element, related information or a series of items. 

One must use a colon sparingly – preferably, only in cases where the second clause is illustrating or amplifying its predecessor (at the end of a complete sentence).

For instance:

  • But consider what else Trump has had to grapple with in recent weeks: A controversy over his fat-shaming of a beauty pageant contestant; the revelation that he could have avoided paying federal income taxes for 18 years; a tape in which he brags about groping women without their consent; a series of women coming forward to claim he did just that. And that’s just the greatest hits reel.
    (‘Polls say Hillary Clinton won the debates – will it matter?’ by Jake Miller, CBS)
  • The dress was available in a choice of vibrant colors: blue, green and yellow.

Use a space after a colon; however, this does not apply to ratios (for example, 10:20). The first word after a colon is always in lowercase, unless it is a proper noun; however, it is important to capitalize the first word of a complete quote/formal statement/proverb that follows a colon.

For instance:

  • She often said to him: “Time is running out.”
  • Remember this always: Honesty is the best policy.

A colon may also be used in introducing a vertical list.

Capitalizing and punctuating the list depends on whether they are individual words and clauses, and if the items contain complete sentences. 

However, a colon may not always be needed before a series or a list – definitely not when the preceding word is a verb or a preposition.