We like to think of punctuation as a beat-indicators for readers. Periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, ellipses m-dashes — they all tell readers when to pause, for how long…and what the intonation should sound like before and after it.

Reread the paragraph above aloud and you’ll hear it. 

The key is to use them right so your reader hears your voice and reads your words as you intended. But the colon and semi-colon are two of the most misused punctuation marks in the English language. They kind of look the same, their names kind of sound the same, but the functions they perform are totally different. Here’s a rundown to bring you up to speed.

The Colon

In the world of punctuation, a colon consists of one dot on top of another dot. It is often used as an introduction tool, to introduce things like lists, explanations or definitions.

With lists, the first part of the sentence tells the reader there will be a list and how many items are on it, and the second part reveals the items. “You need four things to become a successful writer: a creative mind, spelling and grammar skills, a bit of luck and patience.”

For a definition, the colon separates the word and its definition. “Donkey (noun): a domesticated hoofed mammal of the horse family with long ears and a braying call.”  And for an explanation, the colon separates the setup and the explanation. “I know how I will understand this: I will read it fifty times!” You’ve probably seen a colon used when illustrating a ratio, too. “Add oil and vinegar to the dressing in a 2:1 ratio.” In most cases, you should leave one space after a colon.

The Semi-Colon

Onto the semi-colon. This punctuation mark consists of a comma on the bottom and a dot on the top. It is primarily used to join two separate clauses that could be individual sentences. “John has an iPhone; Richard has an Android.” These clauses could be individual sentences, but they have been made into one with the semi-colon.

The reason the semi-colon is used in this instance is usually to suggest a relationship between two thoughts, without actually spelling it out. The example above suggests a contrast between the types of phones John and Richard use. Semi-colons are also used to join clauses using a specific transition word like otherwise or however. “You should proofread your work; otherwise, you will make unnecessary mistakes.” In most cases, you should leave just one space after a semi-colon.

The Colon/Semi-Colon pause myth

Many people believe that the semi-colon indicates a longer pause than a comma. This isn’t the case, and it’s why the semi-colon is so often misused. If you’re looking for a longer pause than a comma, an m-dash is your best bet — especially if you want the back end of your sentence to hit home. See?

Is It Worth the Risk?

If you weren’t aware of the differences between a colon and semi-colon, chances are your readers or clients won’t be either. However, knowing how to use both of these pieces of punctuation will enhance your documents, articles and presentations, and you won’t have to send information out there, hoping no one catches your mistakes. Give us a call if you’d like some help with the world of colons and semi-colons. We’d be happy to help you out.