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Colons & semicolons


Many writers are unfamiliar with how to use both colons ( : ) and semicolons ( ; ) in American academic writing. Often they will use both marks interchangeably or inappropriately use another punctuation mark, like a period or comma. Misused colons and semicolons in your writing can result in grammatically incorrect sentence structures, which can confuse readers.


Use a colon to…

introduce a list or quotation at the end of a complete sentence.

Writers can visit Student Writing Support at any stage of their writing process: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, or revising.

Jarratt (1991) questioned the pedagogical stance of avoiding conflicts in the classroom when teaching composition: “Only through recognition of and argument over differences can conflict be resolved into homonoia, like-mindedness” (p. 114).

connect titles and subtitles.

Defining reality: Definitions and the politics of meaning, by Edward Schiappa (2003), won the 2003 Gary A. Olson Award for the Best Book in Rhetorical & Cultural Theory.

In the article “My life as an infomercial: On time, teaching, and technology,” Pat Miller (2001) discusses the role of technology in teaching online courses.

connect two sentences if the second is a restatement or further explanation of the first.

Minds are like parachutes: they only work when they are open.

I devised a new exercise plan: I would get up early and jog every morning.

separate the different increments of time.

The President started his State of the Union Address at 8:35 p.m., EST.

She ran the marathon in 4:27:53.

express ratios.

In water, the ratio of hydrogen to oxygen is 2:1.

The side ratios of a right-angled isosceles triangle are always 2:2:3.

Use a semicolon to…

connect two closely related sentences. 

Always use a semicolon when you use “however” as a conjunction in a compound sentence.

Writing centers are great; they teach students how to become better writers.

I had been cycling to work all summer long; however, I rode the bus today because I woke up late.

separate items in a list when those items have commas within them.

I have visited Boise, ID; Austin, TX; Denver, CO; and Portland, OR in the past year.

Yesterday, I had to visit the doctor’s office; edit, print, and mail my job application; and choose a restaurant for our five-year-anniversary celebration.


Jarratt, S. (1991). Feminism and composition: The case for conflict. In P. Harkin & J. Schilb (Eds.), Contending with words: Composition and rhetoric in a postmodern age (pp. 105–123). New York: Modern Language Association.

Miller, P. (2001). My life as an infomercial: On time, teaching, and technology. Profession, 137–141.

Schiappa, E. (2003). Defining reality: Definitions and the politics of meaning.
Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.