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Easy Rules for Semi Colons and Colon

Updated on February 5, 2018
VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne has been a University English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Colons vs. Semicolons

Confused about when to use punctuation marks? You aren't alone. Few of my college English students understand how to use them correctly. Yet, mastering the art of these more sophisticated punctuation rules can make your writing look more professional, effective and readable. The basics:

A semicolon is used between two complete sentences.

A colon is used between a complete sentence and an example or list (not a full sentence).

Two Easy Rules

Semicolons separate 2 sentences.  Colons mean "for example."
Semicolons separate 2 sentences. Colons mean "for example." | Source

Using a Semicolon Correctly

Use Instead of a Period

How does this work?

sentence ; sentence

  • Short Examples: Jennifer and I had lived together in the dorms our freshman year in college; thirty years later, we decided to take a road trip back to our University together.
  • Jennifer and I had often gone to have coffee together after class; conversation and cappuccino seemed to go hand in hand as we bared our souls to one another late into the afternoon.
  • Long Example: After visiting the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and eating lunch at Jack-in-the-Box, we investigated the interesting scientific specimens at the Mayborn Science and Nature Museum before heading back to our hotel; we had intended to bed early so we could be ready for the football game the next day, but instead we ended up staying up all night talking and laughing about all the adventures we had experienced together in the dorms as college freshman.

While it is technically correct to put a semicolon instead of a period in between any two sentences, if you start doing this your writing will not only look funny, it will drive your English Instructor crazy! So, here are some guidelines:

  1. Use instead of a period only between two sentences which are more meaningful when you link them together.
  2. Use on sentences which are of equal importance, and generally both about the same number of words.
  3. Use sparingly, only once or twice in an essay of 2-5 pages.
  4. Remember that using a semicolon draws attention to that sentence, so make sure that it is an important sentence in your essay, like the thesis or conclusion.

Semicolon Poll

How often have you used semicolons in writing?

See results

Frequently Used Transition Words List

in conclusion
for example
even so
in contrast
in spite of
for instance
in fact
at that time

Use With Transition Word

Because semicolons are used to link sentences together, they work even better when you make the connection between the sentences clear by using a transition word. Here is the format, notice there is a comma after the transition:

sentence ; transition, sentence

Short Example: When in college, Jennifer and I talked to each other about our boyfriend troubles and dreams about the future; in contrast, now we spent more time talking about our kids, our jobs and our fears about growing old.

Long Example: Jennifer had been a doctor until the birth of her third child, but had given up her full load of patients when she realized that she knew more about their children than she did about her own; on the other hand, I had stayed at home taking care of my five children until they were grown and now was wistful about the career I had missed.

Semi colons vs. Colons Explained

Using a Colon Correctly

Colons are not used as often as commas and semicolons; however, they can be very important in business writing, or online writing where you use lots of bullets and lists. You will see lots of examples of when I use a colon in this Hub. When do you use a colon?

  • To introduce an explanation.
  • Right before a summary of your point.
  • Before a list, or when you mean "as an example."

Here is the format:

main clause : explanation or list

Short Example: During our talk, I found that Jennifer had three dreams she hoped to fulfill before she turned fifty: to ride in a hot air balloon, to scuba dive, and to eat all 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins ice cream.

Laughing together, I had one thought about her dreams: she had better do the first two before she started on the last!

Using Both Together in Complicated Lists

The most complicated kind of sentence uses both colons and semicolons to make a long list of items easier to read. When might you need to do this? Consider this if your list is long and you have lots of descriptive words. If you have commas separating some of the description of the items in the list, you need to use semicolons in between the different items, instead of commas.

Short Example: Jennifer wanted to know about my two adopted daughters: how we had decided to adopt;what paperwork we had filled out; which agency we had used; what they were like when we got them in Hunan, China; and how our three birth children, Maggie, Brendan, and Sophie had responded when we brought our adopted children home.

Long Example: I told Jennifer about our first day in China when we adopted our daughter Mollie. The day was a whirlwind tour which included: climbing the Great Wall, which everyone reminded me can be seen from space; going to the Summer Palace, which was so foggy I don’t remember much of it; strolling Tiananmen Square, where I almost got in trouble for photographing a guard; and seeing the Pandas at the Beijing zoo, where I took pictures for my father who is involved with the Pandas at the San Diego zoo in California.


How About Commas?

Lots of times, my students use a semicolon when they really need a comma. A comma is used to separate parts of the same sentence so that the reader can understand it better. See the Rules for Using Commas. Here is an example of using commas correctly:

My friend, Danielle, who is not going to college,came by to ask me to lunch yesterday. Unfortunately, I couldn't go because I had class, dance practice, and five hours of work at the mall afterwards.

None of the places where there are commas in the above example could be substituted by colons. However, you could put a colon instead of the period after yesterday:

My friend, Danielle, who is not going to college,came by to ask me to lunch yesterday; unfortunately, I couldn't go because I had class, dance practice, and five hours of work at the mall afterwards.

  • Notice that if you do so, you also need to give "unfortunately" a small "u."
  • Generally, when you do combine sentences using a semicolon, you want to be sure it is an important sentence in your paper.
  • Don't use more than one or two semicolons in any short 2-5 page paper. The semicolon emphasizes that sentence as important, so make sure it is!

Here is another example which does not use a transition word in between the two sentences. Notice how when you put the semicolon in the sentence that it emphasizes the connection of cause and effect:

  • My room is a complete disaster. If I don't clean it up before this weekend, I'm afraid the roaches might do it for me!
  • My room is a complete disaster; if I don't clean it up before this weekend, I'm afraid the roaches might do it for me!

Your Examples?

Do you have a complicated sentence that you want to give as an example? Add it to the comments below!


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    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Arielqiao--I think lots of people are that way. I kknow I was!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much Paul. A professor I had in graduate school wrote on one of my papers "cultivate the use of semicolons" and I found that advice so helpful! My writing improved right away because I learned how to write more complicated sentences in a more readable manner.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      This is a very useful hub for anone who wants rules and examples of using semicolons and colons. I, myself, have used colons and semicolons incorrectly in the past, so I really appreciate this hub. This hub is definitely a must read for any writer. Voted up as useful and sharing.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      LisaKoski--thanks for the comments. I should, by the way, point out that in my title I say Semi Colons rather than the correct spelling, semicolons, because that is the way many people search for this information.

    • LisaKoski profile image

      Lisa 5 years ago from WA

      Great hub! I know of a few people who should take a look at this before they get to writing anything again anytime soon. When I was still in school, one of my professors got so frustrated with our class she actually requested we stopped using semicolons altogether. I always avoided them anyway just because I didn't know how to properly use them. Thanks for sharing!

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 5 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Well done hub. You're right - overuse of semicolons is not good. For a great book on the subject check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves, about punctuation of all sorts, told with wit and humor. Voted up and useful

    • lovebuglena profile image

      Lena Kovadlo 5 years ago from Staten Island, NY

      There is so much to learn when it comes to colons and semi-colons. This is a very useful and informative hub. Thanks for sharing.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this review of using semicolons and colons. It's important to keep the correct usage in mind. Reminds of my need to proofread my work more carefully… :)