Thursday, January 08, 2009

Colon or Semicolon?

A couple of listeners (and co-host Ron Jolly ) have asked me to review the difference between a colon and a semicolon. Let’s start with some simplifications, both based on the modern premise that sentences should be short and words should be scrupulously precise.

The only punctuation mark that can replace a colon is a dash. The colon acts as a pointer in its sentence. It points to a list or an explanation that expands on what has just been said. He has two hobbies: stamp collecting and sword-making. That could also be rendered as, He has two hobbies —stamp collecting and sword-making.

The only punctuation mark that can replace a semicolon is a period. The semicolon joins two independent clauses that are closely connected in meaning. My brother is an accountant; my sister is a nurse. Alternatively, you could write, My brother is an accountant. My sister is a nurse. (A third option is to use a coordinating conjunction: My brother is an accountant and my sister is a nurse.)


Now for some complications. First, let’s expand on the colon.

• The first letter following a colon should be in lower case unless it begins a proper name.

• Don’t use a colon after the verb to be (in all its forms).
Wrong Her favorite teams are: the Tigers, the Pistons, and the Red Wings.
Correct Her favorite teams are the Tigers, the Pistons, and the Red Wings.

• Don’t use a colon between a verb and its direct object.
Wrong He dislikes: spinach, tapioca pudding, and buttermilk.
Correct He dislikes spinach, tapioca pudding, and buttermilk.

• Don’t use a colon to separate a preposition from its object.
Wrong They traveled to: Hartford, Hampton, and Hebron.
Correct They traveled to Hartford, Hampton, and Hebron.

• Finally, the colon is used as a simple divider in certain formations.
--Bible references (chapter : verse) Proverbs 26:11
--Time references (hour : minute) 10:30 p.m.
--Book titles (title : subtitle) Wine: A Guide for Beginners
--Business letters (Greeting :) Dear Mr. Smith:
--Ratios In this case, 4:1 is the proper mix.
--Analogies hot : cold :: day : night

Now let’s take a longer look at the semicolon.

• The first letter following a semicolon should be in lower case unless it begins a proper name.

• If you use a semicolon in front of a phrase or a dependent clause (instead of the proper independent clause), you will create a sentence fragment.
Wrong You should always have fire extinguishers handy; in your kitchen and in your garage.
Wrong I missed the turn and hit a tree; because the road was covered with ice.

• If you begin the second independent clause with a transitional word or phrase (however, for instance, meanwhile, etc.), place the semicolon in front of the transitional and place a comma after it. Microwave ovens are convenient; however, recent studies suggest that they may not be safe.

• Contemporary practice condones only one semicolon per sentence. In earlier eras (e.g., the 19th century), very long sentences were in vogue, and such sentences might contain several semicolons, each one pointing to a unit of thought. Check out this example:
“[The true gentleman] has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unreasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.” [John Henry Newman, Idea of a University]

SIDEBAR: Victor Borge on phonetic punctuation

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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