How and when do I use semicolons and colons?


I was once told that, “if you aren’t sure whether to use a semicolon, don’t, use a comma instead.” The problem with this advice is that it means semicolons are often ignored and almost never used in secondary and early post-secondary writing. This FAQ aims to change that mentality. Like in my FAQ on when to use commas, we’ll start with the definition of a dependent and independent clause, as understanding those is crucial to understanding when to use a semicolon.


Independent clause: a clause that has a subject and a verb and can stand alone; a complete sentence.

Dependent clause: a clause that has a subject and a verb but cannot stand alone; an incomplete sentence.


Now that you know the difference, let's begin! Once again, while the examples I give are my own, all this information is pulled straight from PurdueOwl, an excellent resource from Purdue University on all things punctuation and citation.

Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses when the second clause restates the first or when the two clauses are of equal emphasis.

~ Example: The I-285 has become increasingly hard to navigate; many of the exits have been moved and some have even been combined.

Semicolons are also used to join two independent clauses when the second clause begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, moreover, furthermore, thus, meanwhile, nonetheless, otherwise) or a transition (in fact, for example, that is, for instance, in addition, in other words, on the other hand, even so).

~ Example: Updating and maintaining highway infrastructure is important for keeping pace with growing suburbs; however, the construction of new exits and bypasses exaggerates the same traffic issues that the updates aim to address.

Finally, Semicolons are used to join elements of a series when individual items of the series already include commas.

~ Example: Widening the roads and improving highway infrastructure isn’t just limited to big cities like Atlanta, Georgia. It also happens on rural highways that link towns like Milledgeville, Georgia; Rome, Georgia; and Macon, Georgia.


Colons are used to join two independent clauses when you wish to emphasize the second clause.

~ Example: The I-285 has become increasingly hard to navigate: exits 27 and 28 have been combined into one, starting where exit 28 used to be, causing many to miss their exit.

Colons are also used after an independent clause when it is followed by a list, a quotation, an appositive, or other ideas directly related to the independent clause.

~ Example: Building new bypasses requires a lot of material: concrete, rebar, asphalt, and steel girders.

Colons are used at the end of a business letter greeting.

~ Example: To R.E. Barr, head of head of highway expansion:

And finally, Colons are used for separating minutes and hours in times, and chapters from verses in the Bible.

~ Example: At 2:30 in the afternoon, I saw a car go by with a John 3:16 sticker

  • Last Updated Jul 08, 2024
  • Views 21
  • Answered By Nathanael Williams

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