Defeat your fear of punctuation
July 6, 2015
By Cathy Fox
Writing With Precision
Are you afraid of semicolons? How about colons? I once knew someone who would not say the word “colon” when talking about punctuation because, in her mind, it conjured up images of human posterior anatomy, and that embarrassed her. This person was an editor—a job that pretty much requires the use of the word “colon” now and then.
Most people fear the evil colon and its tailed henchman, the semicolon, because they confuse the two and believe they were designed to trick well-intentioned people into looking like idiots. I assure you, they mean you no harm.
In fact, there is an easy way to remember how to use them. This is an image I thought up in grade school, when I was learning punctuation: “,;—:..” It looks like Morse code, but it’s actually a visual mnemonic device. It lists six types of stops that can be used in a sentence, in order of their strength. (I don’t include the question mark because its use isn’t confusing.)
The comma is first because it represents the slightest pause as you speak. The semicolon is next because it is also just a pause, but it lasts a little longer than a comma’s pause and indicates relationship between sentence parts. The dash is next. It’s a slightly longer and more dramatic pause and is often used in pairs to set off remarks that are lightly emphasized. The colon is a much stronger pause that demands, “Look at what follows me.” The period represents a full stop. The exclamation point represents a full stop with enthusiasm.
The most problematic mark for most people is the comma, but confusion between colons and semicolons is a close second.
There are four uses for a semicolon. First, it is used to connect lengthy items in a list or items that have commas within them. By “lengthy,” I don’t mean a certain number of words; I mean long enough that the semicolons help the reader understand the list. For example, “In the foothills of Colorado, it snows so deep in winter that you have to use a broom to dig your car out; springtime is late, short and chilly; it rains lightly every summer afternoon at 4 for five minutes; and in autumn, clouds drift down from the mountains to kiss the top of your head.”
A semicolon separates two independent clauses when you are not using a conjunction to join them. That can be useful when you want to show contrast: “I am not afraid of colons; I’m afraid of semicolons.”
Third, a semicolon separates two independent clauses when you are using a conjunctive adverb such as “however,” “instead, “hence,” etc., to join them: “I think; therefore, I am.”
Fourth, a semicolon should be used before “that is,” “i.e.,” “e.g.” or “for example” if the remainder of the sentence is an independent clause; that is, it could stand alone.
Colons, on the other hand, are used in citations, time and salutations, but those uses are easy to remember. The use of a colon within a sentence is what throws people off, but it’s actually simple: The colon is used to introduce. Imagine it as a circus ringmaster, if that helps.
Use a colon to introduce a list of items following an independent clause (a whole sentence on its own). For example, “These are the six punctuation marks in my mnemonic device: comma, semicolon, dash, colon, period and exclamation point.” Don’t use a colon when the part preceding the listed items is not an independent clause: “My favorite states are Colorado, Kentucky and California.”
Use a colon to introduce information that directly explains the entire introductory clause or when the colon sets up an expectation or anticipation about what follows. For example, “This column addresses a basic question: how to improve your grammar.”
I hope I’ve alleviated your fears and given you some sharp tools to defend yourself against rogue punctuation marks. Now, get out there and punctuate. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2015
Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.