Colons and Semi-Colons

The Colon and Semi-Colon


According to statistics, nine out of ten candidates in English Language exams use only two punctuation marks, the full stop and the comma.  Anyone who can use a semi-colon and colon correctly will be certain to create a good impression with the examiner.


The Colon


The colon can be used before items in a list.

I will need many tools: a hammer, a chisel and a screwdriver.

The colon can also be used before a list of sentences describing more fully a simple statement made previously.  In this case the sentences may be separated by commas rather than full stops.  (they are described as sentences because each could stand alone without introduction of the other sentences listed.)


I looked at the wrecked room: furniture was overturned, crockery was broken, papers were scattered over the floor.

The colon is often also used as an alternative way of introducing a quotation:

I asked him what he was doing and he said: “I’m looking for a place to park this car”.

The Semi-colon


The semi-colon is particularly useful when you wish to avoid a series of short sentences.

He crept to the door; slowly he lifted the latch; he looked out furtively; he could see nothing.

Use the semi-colon when you wish for a stronger stop than a comma but you do not need the complete break a full stop would give.  Think of it as a substitute for “because” or “on the other hand”.

He did not succeed; it was far too difficult.

The decision could bring prosperity; it could bring disaster.

For Practice


Punctuate the following, using commas, colons, semi-colons, and apostrophes where you think appropriate.


1.  His pockets were filled with a strange assortment pieces of string a rubber ball two old coins and a mousetrap.

2.  The pilot smoked a last cigarette he checked the indicators he signalled to his navigator he turned towards the runway in a few moments they were in the air.

3.  I think you ought to bear in mind the old saying “least said soonest mended”.

4.  he listeded to the sounds of spring birds were singing insects were buzzing and the leaves rustled in the slight breeze.

5.  You may not want it I think it is vital.

6.  He wont decide hes too worried to make up his mind.