English As She Is Writ - part eight

The useful colon and semicolon

The colon (:) and the semicolon (;)

These are two punctuation marks that are sometimes avoided because writers are unsure how they should be used. Both are, however, very useful in specific situations, and my advice is to restrict their use to only those few situations.

The colon

The colon has only two uses, both of them of an introductory nature.

  1. The colon may be used to introduce a list; usually of complex items; and usually when the introduction to the list is a complete sentence. Here are a couple of examples.
  • We had everything we needed: two coils of stout rope, a shuttered lantern, a shilling’s worth of linseed oil, and a copy of War and Peace.
  • It was a magnificent picnic: there were crusty rolls filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese, with a large bowl of Waldorf salad; Cook had baked a sponge cake filled with cream and her home-made damson jam; and Herbert had brought two magnums of champagne.

     In the second example above the colon may be replaced by a full stop; but in the first the colon is required because the list of equipment does not constitute a sentence.

  1. The colon may be used to separate a line of argument from its conclusion, or to separate an introduction from the thing being introduced; the thing being introduced may be speech.  It’s a ‘Hey, look at this,’ kind of punctuation mark: it draws the reader’s attention to what follows it. Here are some examples.
  • Look at this: it’s enormous.
  • There is only one thing to do: we must fight.
  • I tell you this: only one of us will return from this desolate cliff-top, my friend, and I intend to be the one.
  • Charles shouted: ‘I tell you again, only one of us will return.’
  • We grappled, we shoved, we struck one another with our fists and with our boots: it was a fight to the death.
  • Everything, from the scuff-marks at the lip of the ledge to the defensive wounds on the dead man’s arms, pointed in the same direction: this was a case of murder.

     You will see that in these examples the colon may be replaced by a full stop.

The semicolon

The semicolon also has only two uses.

  1. The semicolon may be used to separate items in a long or complex list. It is particularly useful if an item in the list includes commas; using semicolons to separate the items reduces potential confusion. Here are two examples.
  • We took with us a camping stove and a canister of gas; a folding table and four folding chairs; the hamper, worn but serviceable, in which my uncle used to keep his fishing tackle; and a plaster model of the Taj Mahal.
  • If you want to see your daughter alive again put into the suitcase: fifty thousand pounds in used ten-pound notes; a ticket for a one-way flight to Johannesburg; a litre bottle, or two, of single-malt whisky; and a copy of War and Peace.

     (Ooh! Look at all those hyphenated words in the second example. I’ll deal with hyphens in a later instalment.)

  1. The semicolon may be used between two equally weighted sentences; it sits in the middle, acting as a kind of fulcrum.

     The two sentences may present opposites or alternatives, as in these examples.

  • I like fish; Edwin prefers pig-meat.
  • All the crew were in despair: some rushed here; the others rushed there.
  • To err is human; to forgive, divine.
  • The defenders had fortifications, armour, sharp metal swords, and all the advantages of superior technology; the barbarians had only their ferocity and an overwhelming hatred of the foreign invaders.

     When used in this way the semicolon can always be replaced by a conjunction. (I like fish but Edwin prefers pig-meat. Some rushed here while the others rushed there.) In most cases (ie where there are two complete sentences) it may alternatively be replaced by a full stop.

      Sometimes, however, the two sentences may be complementary; the second sentence, as here, may provide another way of saying much the same thing as the first. When used in this way the semicolon may be replaced by a full stop: the meaning remains the same.

      In sum, the colon and the semicolon are useful but by no means essential: you can almost always avoid using either. They are quite straightforward to use, though, if you restrict their use to the situations in the guidance here.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

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