Friday, 29 August 2014

Colon Usage: Non-semicolon usage

Colons are misunderstood pieces of punctuation. They have several uses: to start lists like this one, to show elaborations, and to introduce quotes or examples. The main issue which sticks its foot out and trips up writer in the corridors is the difference between semicolons (;) and colons (:).

Many writers seem to opt for a semicolon without realising the difference. Whilst colons are less common, they are very different from semicolons and cannot be used interchangeably. Take a look at this example:

Samantha knew there was only one biscuit left: the digestive.

In this example, the second section is used to elaborate on the first. The digestive is the same biscuit as the one referred to in the first clause. The link is direct rather than implied, and the second clause is incomplete.

However, when the second clause is complete and of a substantial length, you may want to consider capitalizing the first letter after the colon.

There was only one question on Samantha’s mind: Who had pinched her biscuits, and when would they pay?

The structure is still the same as the first example. The first part works as an introduction and the second part elaborates further. Now take a look at how a semicolon is used.

Samantha knew there was only one biscuit left; the packet would be empty soon. 

In the second example, there are several differences. The second clause is complete and could stand alone as a separate sentence, but it is not capitalized. You could also remove the semicolon and put in a connective like ‘and’, which cannot be done to the prior two examples. Lastly, there is only an implied link between the first and second clause.

Both pieces of punctuation methods should be limited in novels. Click here for more info on why and how to reduce them.  Oh, and sometimes when writers use commas, they actually mean to use semicolons. Ever heard of a comma splice? No? Click here.


A Quick Note about Lists in Novels

Colons have a few more usages which can come across as very formal. In novels, it’s better to avoid formal structure unless you've got a good reason to. If you've written a sentence in a way that needs to use a colon, it’s usually best to rephrase. Consider the following example:

The following were permitted: thing one, thing two, and thing three.

Thing one, thing two, and thing three were permitted.


The second is far more appropriate for most novels. If you find yourself using the first example over the second, well, I hope you know what you're doing.

Cheers for reading!