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Semicolon Vs. Colon: A Small But Significant Difference

Semicolon and colon usage is one of the most confusing grammar lessons for students. Get your doubts cleared by reading this example-based comparison.
Kundan Pandey
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
punctuation signs in english
English grammar is complex with numerous rules and an equal number of exceptions. Semicolon and colon stand as a pair of most troublesome punctuations, that may bewilder you every time you try to use them while writing. It must be understood that they are not for merely decorating the sentences in your writing! They have a larger meaning in a sentence, and their correct usage imparts literary beauty to it. Moreover, very long sentences, crafted in style by using punctuations in the right places, help readers to understand them in a much better way. Differences in usage of the colon and semicolon have been mentioned further.
Semicolon Vs Colon Usage
This is one of the most misunderstood pieces of English grammar. The colon is represented by two dots, one above the other, while a semicolon is represented by a dot and a comma, placed one above the other. Both these punctuations have some popular uses, and students can make a note of them. Let us know when to use each.
When to Use a Semicolon
Semicolon usage is common in English language. It acts as a linking punctuation between two complete sentences that are not connected by coordinating conjunctions, like and, but, nor, or, so, and yet. More grammatically speaking, they're used to link two independent clauses in compound sentences. Independent clauses, as we all know are sentences that are complete in themselves. Compound sentences are a combination of many independent clauses. In most of the cases, you may always be able to use a period, instead of a semi colon. However, if sentences are very closely related, we skip the period and use a semi colon.
Example: I'm going to the stationery shop; I need to buy a sketch book.
In case, you put comma in the above sentence after shop, it will be called a comma splice example. This is because, both sentences are independent clauses, and so they must be joined by a semicolon, and not a comma. Another purpose of using semicolons is to let the reader ponder over the relationship between the two sentences. This is used in cases of humor, jokes, and ironic literature.
Example: Luke drives a Mercedes; John drives a Santro Zing.
In the above sentence, it was not incorrect to use a period between the two sentences. However, we're using a semicolon to hint to the reader that there is some relation between the two independent clauses. Here the relation is of contrast. We make the reader think about the relation between two separate sentences. Along with these punctuations, connector words like however, moreover, that is (i.e.), for example (e.g.), and therefore can be used.
Example: Ravi is an Indian; however, he lives in the US.
In the above sentence, the semicolon is placed before the conjunctive verb, however, while the comma is placed after the conjunctive verb. Remember that it is a thumb rule to use semicolons in sentences using such connector words. They are also used in explanations where many commas are already present.
Example: My air trip will take me to the following places across the globe; Delhi, Egypt, Venice, Hongkong, New York, Toronto, Stockholm, and Pune.
The aforementioned information several presented ways on using a semi-colon. Let's now move onto the use of a colon with a few examples to help you understand the same.
When to Use a Colon
Colons introduce us to sentences. The presence of a colon hints towards something that is to follow or occur. After reading the sentence before a colon, you'll realize and anticipate something to happen. Using it requires the presence of two independent clauses. Mostly, a colon is used to introduce a list or to explain something. Here are some examples to explain to you the semicolon vs colon difference.
1)I need to purchase a few things from the grocery store: bread, butter, jam, and fruits.
2)The School drama club has announced the opening of the following plays: King Lear, 11th Feb; the Count of Monte Cristo, 12th Feb; Romeo and Juliet, 14th Feb; and As You Like it, February 20th.
Similarly, they are also used to explain the end of an independent clause in a sentence.
1)Writing is much more than mere arranging of words: it is an expression of the deeper voice within us.
2)After having lost four matches in a row, the captain made a decision: his team would fight one more time.
Colons are also used in salutation of business letters (Dear Mr Luke:____), in the heading of a business memos (To:____, Subject/Title:_______), and between the hour and minutes notations (6:15pm). They are also used in citation of works in literature (Vol. 2:34), in between verses of Bible (Genesis 1:18-20) and sometimes, as a part of titles (NFL Coaches: Salaries of NFL Coaches 2011).
Hence, understanding classic differences between the usage of semicolon and colon can help one to use them in sentences without making any grammatical errors.