Rules for Using Colons and Semicolons

Colons and semicolons are often mistakenly interchanged, even though they have different functions. Colons generally equate information, while semicolons mark distinctions between statements.


Colons are used to introduce lists, quotations, noun phrases, and sentences. Colons are more formal than commas and they often act like equal signs, showing the reader that the things that follow are equal to the information before the colon.

Four types of colon use:

  1. List: Three members of the team will present today: Mark, Matthias, and Tiana.
  2. Quotation: The monkey chatter sounded like they were saying: "Feed us, feed us."
  3. Noun phrase: Janet anxiously waited for her nemesis: the day care teacher.
  4. Sentence: He kept having the same dark dream: snakes wriggling everywhere.


Semicolons may look similar to colons, but they have a different function in a sentence.

Semicolons are used to:

  1. Separate statements in a sentence that are distinct.
  2. Tell the reader that there is something coming that will provide further information.

A grammatical error called a comma splice occurs when a comma is used where a semicolon should be used. For example:

Comma splice: "The project team was too tired, they missed the deadline."

Correctly punctuated: "The project team was too tired; they missed the deadline."

Author: Janie Sullivan

Janie Sullivan, MBA, MAEd, has been teaching adult learners for over 20 years. She has taught online over 15 years, specializing in writing, communications, and small business applications. Janie directs the Center for Writing Excellence where she offers writing, editing, and formatting services for writers. She has been published in several newspapers and magazines as well as multiple online sites. She teaches communication, business strategy, leadership, and management courses. Janie has published a book "Develop and Deliver an Online Class." This is the third book she has written about writing and teaching online. She also has published a novel and an anthology of short stories.

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