The Colon

The colon—along with the semicolon, the comma, and the dash—is an internal stop. That is, it is used only inside a sentence, never at its end.

In modern writing the most common function of the colon is to introduce a

The first principle from which he [Hitler] started was a value judgment: the masses are utterly contemptible. Aldous Huxley

Except for the size of the houses, which varies from tiny to small, the houses look like suburban housing for middle income families in any section of the country: flat, low, lots of wasted space, nothing in the design to please the eye or relieve the monotony.

Sharon R. Curtin

In both these sentences the first portion expresses a general idea (Hitler's "first principle"; "suburban housing for middle income families"). The second portion, introduced by a colon, particularizes the idea.

Sometimes the specification takes the form of a list or series:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Benjamin Disraeli

Occasionally the usual order is reversed, and the sentence begins with the specific word or phrase, which is followed by a colon:

Centering: that act which precedes all others on the potter's wheel.

Mary Caroline Richards

But usually the specific follows the general. Such constructions are emphatic. The key put at the end of the sentence. The effect of the colon, which represents a relatively long pause, is to prepare us for something momentous. The emphasis is seen very clearly in these cases:

A once-defeated demagogue trying for a comeback, he tried what other demagogues abroad had found a useful instrument: terror.

Wallace Stegner

Finally, last point about the man: he is in trouble.


What distinguishes a black hole from a planet or an ordinary star is that anything falling into it cannot come out of it again. If light cannot escape, nothing else can and it is a perfect trap: a turnstile to oblivion. Nigel Calder

Notice in all these examples that it is not necessary that the construction following the colon be a complete clause. It can be a phrase or even a single word.

Colons are also used to introduce quotations (really a kind of specification), especially long, written ones:

A master expositor, W. K. Clifford, said of an acquaintance: "He is writing a book on metaphysics, and is really cut out for it; the clearness with which he thinks he understands things and his total inability to express what little he knows will make his fortune as a philosopher." Brand Blanshard

And sometimes rhetorical questions are introduced by a general statement followed by a colon:

The question is: How and to what purpose? Time magazine

In such a construction it is common practice (but not an absolute rule) to begin the question with a capital letter.


I. Introduces specifications, often, though not always, in the form of a list or series

II. Introduces quotations, particularly extended written ones

III. Occasionally introduces rhetorical questions

The Semicolon

The semicolon has two functions: to separate independent clauses and, under certain conditions, to distinguish the items in a list or series. The first function is by far the more common.

Semicolon Between Independent Clauses

Independent clauses may be joined either by coordination or by parataxis. In the first case they are linked by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, either.. or, neither ... nor, both ., and, not only.. but), which is usually preceded by a comma. In the second they are simply run together with no conjunctive word but are separated by a stop, conventionally a semicolon:

Sentimentality and repression have a natural affinity; they're the two sides of one counterfeit coin. Pauline Kael

Paratactic compound sentences punctuated with semicolons are especially common when the second clause repeats the first:

The New Deal was a new beginning; it was a new era of American government. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Wendell Willkie was publicly and privately the same man; he was himself. Roscoe Drummond

All of these newcomers—black and white—toiled under some degree of unfreedom; they were bound servants for greater or lesser terms. Oscar Handlin

Using and in such sentences would be subtly misleading, implying a change of thought where none in fact exists.

Parataxis is also effective between clauses expressing a sharp contrast of idea:

Languages are not invented; they grow with our need for expression. Susanne K. Langer

He [President Calvin Coolidge] knew precisely what the law was; he did not concern himself with what the law ought to be.

Irving Stone

Groups are capable of being as moral and intelligent as the individuals who form them; a crowd is chaotic, has no purpose of its own and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking. Aldous Huxley

Clauses like these could be joined by a comma and but. Omitting the conjunction and using a semicolon, however, makes a stronger statement, forcing readers to see the contrast for themselves.

Occasionally even coordinated clauses are separated by a semicolon. This is done at the discretion of the writer and is more common when the clauses are relatively long and complicated, containing commas within themselves. In that case a semicolon more clearly signals the break between them. The following sentence is an example (the Duke of Wellington is commenting with pleasant cynicism upon the capacity of young ladies to endure the absence of lovers gone to war):

They contrive, in some manner, to live, and look tolerably well, notwithstanding their despair and the continued absence of their lover; and some have even been known to recover so far as to be inclined to take another lover, if the absence of the first has lasted too long.

Even when the coordinated clauses are not very long, a semicolon may still replace the more conventional comma if the writer wants a pause for emphasis or rhythm:

Children played about her; and she sang as she worked.

Rupert Brooke

So the silence appeared like Death; and now she had death in her heart. Ford Madox Ford

Run-on Sentences

A run-on sentence occurs when a semicolon has been omitted between uncoordinated independent clauses. Sometimes a comma is used instead (when it is, the error is often called a "comma fault"):

INCORRECT It was late, we went home.1

And sometimes the clauses are simply run together with no stop of any kind:

INCORRECT It was late we went home.

The most frequent cause of run-on sentences is mistaking the function of conjunctive adverbs—such words as however,

1. Commas are sometimes effective in such cases, the so-called comma link. Comma links are discussed on pages 286-87.

nonetheless, therefore, consequently, even so, on the other hand, for example. These adverbs do not join clauses grammatically; they only show a relationship between the ideas in the clauses. In this they differ from coordinating conjunctions, which traditionally designate both a grammatical and a logical connection.

The difference may seem arbitrary. The coordinating conjunction but and the conjunctive adverb however, for instance, can be used almost interchangeably between appropriate clauses. Even so, the first is a conjunction and needs only a comma (or maybe even no stop at all); the second is an adverb and, when it is unaccompanied by a conjunction, requires a semicolon:

It was not late, but we went home. It was not late; however, we went home.

It would result in a run-on sentence to punctuate it like this: INCORRECT It was late, however, we went home.

Run-on sentences may be corrected in several ways, though for any given case one way will probably be best. The simplest solution is to put a semicolon in the proper place. Or the clauses may be joined by an appropriate coordinating conjunction accompanied by a comma (though this stop may be omitted if the clauses are short and simple). Or the two clauses may be recast as two sentences. Finally, the clauses may be kept as parts of the same sentence with one being subordinated to the other, in which case a comma may or may not be needed between them. Thus the run-on sentence "The search was fruitless, the men were discouraged" can be corrected:

The search was fruitless; the men discouraged.

The search was fruitless; and the men were discouraged.

The search was fruitless. The men were discouraged. Because the search was fruitless the men were discouraged.

Semicolon in Lists and Series

Semicolons are conventionally used to separate all the items in a list or series when any of the items contains a comma. This is done because the presence of a comma within one or more items requires a stronger stop to signal the distinction between one unit in the series and another. Look at this sentence about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s:

There were other factors too: the deadly tedium of small-town life, where any change was a relief; the nature of current Protestant theology, rooted in Fundamentalism and hot with bigotry; and, not least, a native American moralistic blood lust that is half historical determinism, and half Freud. Robert Coughlan

Even when a comma occurs in only one item, consistency requires that semicolons be used between all the elements of the series:

He [Huey Long] damned and insulted Bigness in all its Louisiana manifestations: Standard Oil, the state's dominant and frequently domineering industry; the big corporations; the corporation lawyers. Hodding Carter

Semicolon with Subordinate Clause

Now and then a semicolon separates a main clause and a subordinate one, a job conventionally assigned to the comma. The stronger semicolon is helpful when the clauses contain internal commas; it more clearly signals the break between the clauses and helps the reader to follow the grammar:

He [the white policeman) moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes. James Baldwin


I. Between independent clauses

A. Paratactic: semicolon is the conventional stop

B. Coordinated: comma is conventional semicolon is optional for clarity or emphasis II. In lists and series

Semicolon between all items when any item contains a comma

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