Semicolons and colons

The semicolon and colon look similar; however, they have very different functions for punctuating sentences. A semicolon is written like this ; (a full stop above a comma) and a colon is written like this : (a full stop above a full stop). This page will explain the rules for:

Grammar checkers will not help you much with your semicolons and colons. They will not let you know if a colon is needed at all. Sometimes, you will see a green line to warn you that you may need a semicolon to avoid a run-on sentence, but you cannot rely on this. You will need to proofread your work and apply the rules for using semicolons and colons in your writing.

Using semicolons  ;

Semicolons have a number of functions in a sentence. If you use semicolons in your writing, use them sparingly and apply the rules correctly.
Semicolons are used to separate sentences that are closely related in content or theme. In this case, the semicolon is used to separate ideas that need a stronger break than a comma, but are too close in meaning to use a full stop.

Example 1 My lecturer stopped me after the tutorial; she had something else to tell me.

Example 2 Few enrolling students know exactly what career their studies will offer them; most find their area of interest during their studies.

 

Semicolons and commas are used around conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases when you are using them to write a compound sentence (see also: Sentence types).

See the following examples of sentence connectors:

Conjunctive adverbs

also, anyhow, next, anyway, incidentally, nonetheless, indeed, otherwise, similarly, still, then, furthermore, hence, besides, however, moreover, therefore, thus, nevertheless, consequently

Transitional phrases

after all, as a matter of fact, as a result, at any rate, at the same time, even so, for example, for instance, in addition, in conclusion, in fact, in other words, in the first place, on the contrary, on the other hand, in the circumstance, of course

Exams measure student ability; however, not all students perform well in them.

The ASO room at the Dixson Library is reserved for student consultations; after all, students are entitled to ask questions about their academic skills in privacy.

 

Semicolons separate complex items in a list item that already has commas. You will also use a semicolon before the last ‘and’.

At the University of New England, there are ten Schools: Arts; Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences; Humanities; Environmental and Rural Science; Science and Technology; Business, Economics and Public Policy; Law; Education; and Rural Medicine and Health.

 

Semicolons separate in-text references in when you are citing more than one item in brackets or a footnote. Authors’ names are presented alphabetically.
(Atkinson, 2007; GrammarTime, n.d.; Jackson & Brown, 2008; Strongman et al., 2009)

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Using colons  :

Colons have a number of functions in a sentence. If you use colons in your writing, use them sparingly, and never use a colon more than once in any sentence.

Colons can be used to introduce a list, but they must follow a complete sentence (independent clause).

INCORRECT: The nine elements of a formal report are: title page, abstract, table of contents, introduction, body, conclusions, recommendations, references and appendix/appendices.

Suggested revision:

CORRECT: A formal report includes nine elements: title page, abstract, table of contents, introduction, body, conclusions, recommendations, references and appendix/appendices.

 

Colons can be used to explain, summarise or extend the meaning in a sentence by introducing a word, phrase or clause that enlarges on the previous statement.

Students generally use one word for describing their feelings about learning how to use written English correctly: empowering.

Learning correct English can take some time if you do not have a background in the rules of English grammar: at least six months for many students.

The increase in student numbers is understandable: the university is offering extra help for students with their essay writing skills.

 

Colons are used to separate a title from its subtitle.
Writing for university: A student guide to successful essays

 

Colons can be used to introduce a quotation in formal academic writing.
Long quotation

Writing and marking essays are time-consuming and expensive processes that require careful consideration:

In most courses, assignments are set throughout the semester. They take considerable staff time and resources to mark and time and effort for students to prepare. It is well worth the time for lecturers to research alternative assessment methods, such as online quizzes, to lessen the marking load and provide a more balanced approach to tertiary assessment. (Smith, 2008, p. 12)

Because universities have diminishing budgets, it is important that alternative assessment strategies are investigated.

Short quotation

In her research on student writing, Smythe (2004, p. 37) finds: “Many students benefit from academic writing programs that involve their own assignment tasks”.

Exception

If you use the word ‘that’ do not use a colon to introduce your quotation.

Smythe (2004, p. 37) finds that “Many students benefit …”

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