Colons and semicolons
Using incorrect punctuation can be a minor oops or a major mistake that confuses readers or even changes the meaning of a sentence. I find colons and semicolons often misused, so here are a few pointers.Colons (:) Colons are used to give emphasis, present dialog, introduce lists or texts and clarify composition titles, like this:
- I offer three services: writing, editing and proofreading.
- My goal is always the same: to support clients in writing their way to more success.
- One of the following statements is wrong:
- My niece recently visited New York City.
- My nephew is spending his spring break in Northern California.
- I’m writing this from the moon.
One place you should never use a colon is at the end of a title. Using a bigger font or bold is enough to let readers know you’re introducing the content that follows. (For instance, it would be incorrect to use a colon after “Colons and semicolons” above.)Semicolons (;) Semicolons are most often used to join two related independent clauses or separate items in a list that contains internal punctuation. Here are two examples of their proper use:
- Remember, these are general guidelines; you should always consult a financial advisor or tax professional for personalized advice based on your financial situation.
- I’m grateful to work with leaders who value trust and autonomy; innovation; raw, objective data; and our voices as team members.
The next time you use a semicolon between two clauses, stop to make sure the copy on either side can stand alone. If it can’t, choose another punctuation mark. Too many writers think using semicolons makes them look smart; it doesn’t—and the opposite is the case when they’re misused.
There’s no substitute for writing with simplicity. Using obscure words will make people scratch their heads and do one of three things: look up the meaning, figure out the meaning from the context or decide the content is over their head and stop reading. Not good. I recently ran across the word imbue as I was editing and had to look it up. To spare future readers from being stumped, I changed it to the easier-to-understand permeate.
U.S. or UK?
There are many differences between American English and British English. If you’re writing for a U.S. audience you want to stick with the former but sometimes you may not be sure what’s right. Take dialogue/dialog and catalogue/catalog—the first option in both cases is more standard for Brits while the second is more common for Americans.