Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons have a tendency to frighten some readers and vex many writers; if I had a dollar for each time someone asked me how to use them correctly (and I answered, ‘Uhm . . .’), I’d have an enviable savings fund.

For a bravura defence of the semicolon and colon, read Lynne Truss’s essay ‘Airs and Graces’, from her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003). It’s funny and helpful, and I entreat you to keep her book to hand if you are that kind of writer who succumbs to any degree of punctuational wobbling.

For now, though, I’ll give it my best shot.

Why use them at all?

Many writers have scorned the semicolon. For Donald Barthelme, quotes Truss, it was ‘ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’. And in his late-in-life essay collection A Man Without a Country (2005), Kurt Vonnegut refers to semicolons as ‘transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’ (No smiley/winky emoji fun for Kurt, then; and I bet it didn’t win him fans among the rainbow community, either.) Today, rather than voice scorn, people tend to fear the semicolon in the same way they dread the weirdo that always sits next to them on the train. It raises the spectre of the unknown.

The colon seems not to raise so many hackles, perhaps — who knows? — because of the comforting symmetry of its two dots, or its more forthright helpfulness (as I shall explain). But taken together, the colon and its semi chum throw people into a mire of confusion, particularly when the choice between them is not abundantly clear.

Each of them serves as a specialized interface between two complete sentences, thus linking them into a compound sentence. At a push, both the colon and semicolon can (usually) stand in for a full stop. Conversely, a full stop can substitute either of the other two; but there are times when a full stop either is too brutally terminal or allows no scope for nuance, clarification or elaboration.

Colons develop and clarify

Here’s an example of how a colon can develop your point and/or add clarification. First, the limitations of a full stop.

  • The date was a disaster. At the end of the evening, Joe forgot to see her into a cab home.

Was the date disastrous because of Joe’s failure to arrange transport? Or did the cab error merely heap misery on an already worthless evening? The former seems likely, but, reading this terse account, we cannot be altogether sure.

Let’s look at it again with a colon on board:

  • The date was a disaster: at the end of the evening, Joe forgot to see her into a cab home.

Now, the colon makes it painfully clear: next time, Joe must remember the cab.

In this usage, then, the colon relates the first statement to the second and, importantly, tells us that the second statement will unpack the first.

A couple more examples:

  • He had found a world in which he felt comfortable: one that was full of sparkly glamour, wild parties and people who could punctuate.
  • The camp rules are very clear on this point: Anyone caught drinking will be sent home.

Did you notice in that second example the capital letter following the colon? A capital is warranted where the material following the colon consists of more than one sentence, or is a formal statement (as above), a quotation, or direct speech.

Colons introduce lists

As illustrated throughout this post, the colon can introduce lists.

  • There were two things she lacked: a moonless night and a shovel.
  • Here’s what we offer:
    – Preferential rates on week nights.
    – A guaranteed seat in the front three rows.
    – Group discounts for parties of five or more.

Semicolons are buoyant

If you like reading the kind of novel where a moody hero pockets a 9mm Beretta before breakfast and spends the day dispatching goons, you’ll probably find shorter sentences are the go. Terse. To the point. That’s fine. I’m not a snob. I do too.

If, however, you long for a more engaging construction that weaves mellifluously through thought and expression like the carved arabesques of an antique screen, or at least manages longer sentences without breaking sweat, you’ll probably find semicolons somewhere discreetly performing the task of punctuational knicker elastic and holding the whole thing aloft.

Here’s a paragraph from the prelude in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

What the semicolons do here is enable the author to form compound sentences that connect thoughts and invite the reader onward, while also giving points at which to pause for breath. They impose phrasing and pace, serving as springboards from which sentences with comma’ed clauses can sail on.

You may have spotted that in Eliot’s sentences above, the material following the semicolon isn’t quite the full sentence; illustrating how rules are written to be broken. These days it’s more in vogue to use a dash in such places — but to me, a dash can feel like a handbrake turn at speed. I prefer the graceful bounce of a semi.

Semicolons help in lists

Lynne Truss explains how the semicolon ‘performs the duties of a kind of Special Policeman in the event of comma fights’. Her description is bang-on, and it’s an essential function, as you’ll see from my example below.

In the space of three years, they lived in Shepherd’s Bush, on the street where Monty Python filmed the silly walk sketch, in Brockwell, with a view of the park, in Clapham, with some pleasant-if-Sloaney flatmates, and in East Acton, where the goods trains rattled the bedroom window at night.

If you knew London well enough you could make sense of this, but most readers would prefer some sorting, thus:

In the space of three years, they lived in Shepherd’s Bush, on the street where Monty Python filmed the silly walk sketch; in Brockwell, with a view of the park; in Clapham, with some pleasant-if-Sloaney flatmates; and in East Acton, where the goods trains rattled the bedroom window at night.

When things get fuzzy

I mentioned earlier that the choice between colon and semi isn’t always clear-cut. To illustrate this, here is an example I’ve lifted from the Chicago Manual of Style:

  • The officials had been in conference most of the night: this may account for their surly treatment of the reporters the next morning.

In this first version, the colon tells us the second statement will directly amplify the first, and it also underscores the close relatedness of the two parts of the compound sentence.

  • The officials had been in conference most of the night; this may account for their surly treatment of the reporters the next morning.

In version two, with a semicolon, the sense of amplification is diminished (though not altogether lost), and so the two parts of the sentence stand more apart; and yet the semicolon nonetheless links them, establishing continuity of thought.

The key point is that both versions are valid. Your choice of punctuation can make shifts that are subtle, nuanced.

Clear as mud?

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