Dina Friedman's Monthly Writing Advice

Vol. 1 # 8, February 2002 - Semicolon vs. Colon

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Dear Dina,

Thanks for the info on semicolons, but what the heck is the difference between a semicolon and a colon?

Signed,
Confounded by Colon Confusion

Dear Confounded,

I'd like to say the only difference between a colon and a semicolon is in its name, but that wouldn't be the total truth. While the colon is mostly used at the end of a salutation for a business letter or to introduce a quote, it also can be used between two independent clauses, just as a semicolon can. The big difference is that you use a colon to set up reason, evidence, or justification in the second clause. For example,

The price of gas keeps going up: it's currently $1.40 per gallon.

A colon can also be used after an independent clause to introduce a list. The words before the colon *must* be an independent clause, but the items after the colon do not. For example,

These are my favorite movies: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chocolat, Gone with the Wind.

*Never* say my favorite movies are: Harry Potter, Chocolat, Gone With the Wind, because "My favorite movies are" is not a complete independent clause.

Hope this sheds some of the light on colons and their difference from semicolons. Remember, there's always a choice here, and when in doubt, consult a stylebook.

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Best,
Dina

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Dina Friedman, M.S.W., has worked with individuals and groups on issues for thirteen years. A published fiction writer, poet, playwright, and journalist and winner of several awards and honors, she coordinates academic writing workshops for Mount Holyoke College. She has taught rhetoric, English Comp, and creative writing at the University of Massachusetts, Holyoke Community College, and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

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