Practical Punctuation: the semi-colon and colon

practical punctuation tipsCertain elements of punctuation go in and out of style, and writers sometimes fixate on them. A few years ago, semi-colons were the thing. Quite a few writers (who would deny it now!) used semi-colons with happy abandon, substituting them for commas in every third sentence. It wasn’t long before editors, teachers and grammar enthusiasts called a halt to it. Not because those semi-colons were necessarily wrong grammatically, but because they are much better used sparingly.

A semi-colon can become like a tic. So can a dash, or an exclamation mark (that’s the one I have to watch in my own writing). It’s similar to qualifiers such as very, somewhat, just and quite. So when should you use a semi-colon? First of all, it can definitely replace the comma that creates a run-on sentence. So instead of:

Mary put on her favorite red and black striped hat, John wrapped a scarf around his neck.

You could write:

Mary put on her favorite red and black striped hat; John wrapped a scarf around his neck.

Why? Because the two actions are related. It’s very cold and both characters are getting ready to go outside. There are times when you might want two short sentences with a full stop, but that will depend on the effect you want. A semi-colon can also correctly join two clauses with a transition:

Mary put on her favorite red and black striped hat; however, John pulled it off her head and threw it into a bush.

Note that in this example, a comma instead of that semi-colon would be wrong.

So what do we use colons for? Not to join clauses! Mostly, it’s used to introduce a list, or an explanation or definition. So we have:

I’ll take three things to the beach today: a big towel, a shady hat, and my new red sandals.

Let me tell you one thing you need to know: I’m not going to confess to anything.

Cacophony: a huge noise made up of many loud sounds.

Now, here’s a test for you: tonight on the news, the newsreader said, “The woman’s body still lays in the street.”

Yes, that last one was a question for all of you – is this the correct usage of lay/lie? I might tackle this one next time.

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