Punctuation Series: Pauses Part 2—Semi-colons and colons
Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
This is the second in a three-part series looking at the four pauses in the English language.
In standard English punctuation systems, the semi-colon and the colon are two of the four primary pauses. (The others are the comma and the full stop, which are covered in more detail in other articles.) They both indicate a slight slowing and halt in the flow of text in order to change the tone, pace the reader, or introduce new information.
The semi-colon, as you may expect, indicates a pause slightly shorter than the pause indicated by the colon.
Virginia Woolf loved them and Kurt Vonnegut didn't. Vonnegut famously wrote in A Man Without a Country "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."
Well, I love Vonnegut as much as the next English Lit major, but I beg to differ. And, if the results when you Google "punctuation tattoo" are anything to go by, I'm not alone in this opinion. (And I don't see the relevance of transvestites or hermaphrodites to semi-colons, either.)
I would suggest that the reason for this resistance to a perfectly functional piece of punctuation is the tendency of some writers (both professional and amateur) to scatter them about like rice at a wedding.
Semi-colons have two primary uses in English: splicing dependent clauses and delineating complex list items.
The semi-colon's role in joining clauses is similar to that of the comma. I've discussed the comma's role in detail in my previous article, and I'll revisit some of the underlying linguistics to explain where the semi-colon comes into it.
Know your clauses
Clauses are bits of a sentence. Sometimes a sentence is one clause:
I didn't eat your bagels.
Other sentences are made of clauses all joined up in various configurations.
I wouldn't eat your bagels: they're not gluten-free and you know I'm eating gluten-free at the moment.
There's at least three clauses in that example.
Clauses can be dependent or independent. Can your clause stand alone as a sentence? It's independent.
I didn't eat your bagels; they're not gluten-free.
There's two independent clauses: look, you can break that sentence into two sentences and it still makes sense.
I didn't eat your bagels. They're not gluten-free.
If your clause can't stand as a sentence on its own, then you've got a dependent clause right there. For example, if you take the sentence:
I wouldn't eat your bagels with any cheese or any sauce.
And try to break it into two sentences:
I wouldn't eat your bagels. With any cheese or any sauce.
That second sentence doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. You need the first bit (with the bagels and the refusal and all) for the second to be meaningful. That's a dependent clause.
So that's dependent versus independent clauses. That's what we need to talk about here. How you're building your sentence determines whether and where to use a semicolon.
Semi-colon: give the clauses some space
It's as easy as this: if you've got two independent clauses and you want them to share a sentence, they're going to need a little more space than a comma can provide. Call on your pal the semi-colon.
I hated that bagel; sesame bagels bore me.
One of the most important roles of the comma, as discussed in the comma article, is pacing the items in a list so the reader/audience can mentally absorb each one. But when you're preparing a list of complex items, such as items that have additional description, a semi-colon is a far clearer delineator of the individual items.
The bakery offered sesame bagels, light and crusty with seeds on top; onion bagels, dark with caramelised onions; blueberry bagels, usually sold out by ten o'clock; and orange bagels, always the last to sell.
Each of these items contains its own comma as part of its description: to avoid confusing or delaying the reader, the semi-colon serves to indicate where each item ends and provides the space needed for the reader to absorb them.
The semi-colon is a remarkably unenigmatic and straightforward piece of punctuation, pulling duty when a comma doesn't create quite enough pause.
The colon is a far heartier pause: the second-longest pause used in standard English. It is a jumbo pause, designed to let the reader know there's something significant about to come. Usually, that something will prove, define, explain, describe, clarify or list elements of whatever preceded the colon. While traditionally writers were encouraged to use a whole sentence before the colon, I would argue there is some significant flexibility here, especially in writing where the author's voice is allowed some display.
Horses: pain in the rear in every respect.
I'm out: last time the horse stole all my bagels.
Horses: quadrupedal dietitians.
(Of course, this opens the door to discussions about what does and does not constitute a sentence, but we'll be here all night if we go into that, so let's quickly shut that door.)
Colon classification can be a tricky business: there are different ways of looking at the role the colon serves, and that can change how authors approach it.
My recommendation is to use a colon when your clause: * has a logical consequence * needs a bit more explanation * could use a bit of description * is a definition * introduces a quotation * introduces a list (like this one!)
If your clause makes a statement and there's a logical consequence to the events of that statement, a colon shows that there's a significant relationship between the two.
Johnno fell off the horse: he swore he would never ride again.
Sometimes a clause would benefit from illustrative description, which can be set apart using the colon:
Johnno remembered the horse that ate his bagels: tall, brown, fierce and farty.
An easy one: sometimes your clause makes an assertion and needs some extra detail to explain where it came from.
Johnno hated horses: years ago, a horse had stolen all his bagels.
When you have a clause that introduces a new topic or term, and that topic or term should be clarified before proceeding, a colon links the term or topic and its meaning in a close and logical way.
Johnno was a classic case for equinophobia: fear of horses.
The colon is also used for introducing direct quotes of speech and text: this tends to be a matter of individual style. In less formal registers, a comma will work well in this role as well.
Johnno said: "You'll never get me on a horse again."
In everyday use, this is where the colon most frequently makes its appearance. Breaking the introductory text from the content of the list is clear and precise using a colon.
Johnno counted on his fingers: once when he was in his teens; again when he was in his early twenties; finally in his late twenties, when he broke his collarbone.
I'll bring: eggs, bandages, bagels, salad, bug spray and ginger beer.
Colons are also used to set subtitles apart from titles, like so:
Horses: the equine menace will be out later this year.
and to set examples apart from regular text (as used above).
Semi-colons and colons are, like most punctuation, useful and precise tools. Using them effectively in your writing is a matter of understanding what these pauses offer to your voice. As always, if you're writing or editing in accordance with an organisational or in-house style guide, please defer to that guide.