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The Comma Part 4: The Semicolon and Colon Explained

One technique for fixing a comma splice is to take the simple step of exchanging the comma for a period or a semicolon or a colon. Each of these three punctuation marks is accepted by grammarians as strong enough to mediate between two sentences. But what messages are writers sending when they use one of these punctuation marks versus another?

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The period (or “full stop” as it is also known) is pretty final. It throws up a barrier between the two sentences. The writer is offering no information whatsoever about how the idea in one sentence is related to the other. The only clue about the relationship between the ideas is that they are in sequence, that one follows the next.

 

The semi-colon, on the other hand, is a little more subtle. What it tells the reader is that there is a relationship between the ideas contained in these sentences. They are sufficiently important to each other that they need to be linked. They shouldn’t be separated from each other.

 

And the colon goes a little bit further. It tells the reader that the second sentence explains or interprets the first.

 

So let’s see what this looks like in action. And I can do that by using two sentences from this very blog:

The writer is offering no information whatsoever about how the idea in one sentence is related to the other.

The only clue about the relationship between the ideas is that they are in sequence, that one follows the next.

 

I made a conscious choice when I punctuated those two sentences as separate ideas. I used the period between them because I wanted you, the reader, to have two ways to get at the same information. Perhaps you got the idea with the first sentence? But maybe the second way of expressing the meaning was clearer to you? I just wanted to give you two ways of understanding the point I was making and to give you two ways of getting at the idea.

 

On the other hand, I could have used a semicolon:

The writer is offering no information whatsoever about how the idea in one sentence is related to the other; the only clue about the relationship between the ideas is that they are in sequence, that one follows the next.

 

Would you have preferred that? I didn’t think so, myself. Most readers these days don’t like long English sentences: they seem to prefer shorter “sound bites.” Some linguists actually suggest that the semicolon is a defunct punctuation mark. To quote Jack Chambers – a prominent Canadian linguist:

"Any two consecutive sentences . . . ought to have a relationship if they are coherent. A period looks better, sounds better and is better. A semicolon is a queer little excrescence and has no function on its own."

 

That said, there are many – and your professors or instructors might be among them – who still value the subtlety and nuance implied by a semicolon.

 

Finally, there’s the possibility of a colon to join two sentences. I used it quite deliberately in the paragraph above:

Most readers these days don’t like long English sentences: they seem to prefer shorter “sound bites.”

 

In this case, the second sentence EXPLAINS the idea in the first. It explains WHY readers don’t like those long sentences combined with semi-colons.

 

So perhaps you might decide, at least, to use a colon at some point in your essays. Just note this one last subtlety: it’s perfectly acceptable to start the sentence that comes after the colon with a capital letter:

 

Most readers these days don’t like long English sentences: They seem to prefer shorter “sound bites.”

 

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