Colons and Semi-Colons

This week, you get a full colonic!

Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

Actually, full treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of a brief piece, but here are some basics.

The colon (:)
The colon is most frequently used to introduce a list of items, but it can often be omitted. There is no need for a colon in the following sentence:

The syndicate of lenders consists of: Bank of Montreal, Bank of Nova Scotia and TD.

The colon is correctly used after the word ‘sentence’ just before the example; it introduces what is to follow, where that doesn’t just flow naturally from the earlier part of the sentence. As H.W. Fowler put it, the colon ‘delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words.’

The colon can also be used to great effect in what Fowler calls ‘gnomic contrasts’. For example:

Man proposes: God disposes.

Do this sparingly: over-use dulls the effect.

The colon can also be used to introduce a quotation, generally where the context is not conversational (The witness stated: ‘Blah blah blah’.).

The semi-colon (;)
Also used with lists, but to separate items that have internal commas. Like so (assuming for the moment that we’re still using 1990s names and punctuation):

The following firms were represented: Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt; Stikeman, Elliott; and Blake, Cassels and Graydon.

Confusion might arise if the semi-colons were absent (and you didn’t know which names went with which). Note the effective use of a ‘serial’ or ‘Oxford’ semicolon before and; but where this isn’t necessary in the interests of clarity, I’d omit it.

The semi-colon can also be used to break up long, convoluted sentences that contain lots of subordinate clauses and commas – but it’s doubtful that you want to write in a prose style reminiscent of a nineteenth-century novelist, right?

A good use of the semi-colon is to connect two units which could be separate sentences, but which are logically linked. Using a comma would make this a run-on sentence (which is bad):

I couldn’t think of a single thing to say; situations like that leave me at a loss for words.

The bit after the semi-colon doesn’t so much complete the thought in the first part as explain or describe it. The semi-colon offers a softer and less abrupt break than a colon; it’s only half a colon, after all.

Next week: miscellaneous little things that annoy me

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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