When To Use A Semicolon vs Colon: Breaking Down Semicolons vs. Colons In Everyday Writing

Let’s be honest: Punctuation can be hard. But it’s something you want to do well; how you write can make a lasting impression on your customers and clients.

Understanding when to use a semicolon versus a colon in writing can be confusing for many people. These punctuation marks may seem similar, but they have distinct purposes and can greatly impact the clarity and flow of your writing.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or just someone looking to improve your writing skills, knowing the proper usage of semicolons and colons is essential. In this blog post, we will delve into the differences between these two punctuation marks and provide examples to help you master their usage.

What Is Colon?

A colon (:) is a type of punctuation that is used to start lists of things or draw attention to specific statements. “To be happy is the only thing I want in life,” for instance. ‘Happy’ is emphasized in this instance by the colon. When the second phrase builds upon, clarifies, or provides an example of the first, the colon is also utilized to divide the two independent clauses. For instance, “I dream that everyone will be treated equally one day.” The colon in this sentence sets up the second clause, which describes the dream.

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Why Do We Use Colon While Writing?

The use of a colon while writing tells readers that two ideas in a sentence are closely related. It’s a punctuation mark of direction and illustration.

A colon usually indicates to the reader that the following is for emphasis or clarification and comes after an independent sentence. There are other conventions for using colons besides this one.

The fact that different style guides utilize colons in different ways presents one of the main challenges with them. Keep reading to find out how to use colons in different writing styles.

Different Writing Styles and How To Use Colon In Each

1. Associated Press (AP)

AP Style allows you to use a colon (:) after a sentence fragment. If the word follows the colon and begins at least one full sentence, it is capitalized. Consider the statement, “Fight and flight are the two most common adrenaline responses.”

The AP style allows for the alternative writing of this sentence as a list of bullets.

“The two most common adrenaline responses are:

  • fight
  • flight”

Notice how neither of the elements in the list are capitalized because they aren’t the start of a complete sentence or proper nouns.

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2. Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

In the Chicago Manual of Style, you can capitalize the letter after a colon compared to the AP style. In Chicago, you should capitalize after a colon when you are introducing two or more clauses.

As an example:

“Mark’s favorite hobbies include Cycling on the weekend and taking long evening walks.”

The same sentence would change this way in the absence of an independent clause:

“It’s John’s favorite hobby: cycling on the weekend.”

3. MLA

When using MLA writing style you must capitalize after the colon only when it introduces:

  • A rule or principle
  • Several related sentences
  • A usually capitalized word, such as a proper noun

Don’t use a colon in MLA if it introduces an example or an illustration that can instead be introduced with the help of phrases like, for example, that is, or namely.

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4. American Psychological Association (APA) style

In APA style a colon should only follow a clause, which means the preceding part must be a full sentence, on its own. When it comes to capitalization you should capitalize after the colon if it introduces one clause or a proper noun.

When To Use Colon While Writing

Before we dive more deeply into how to use a colon, let’s first look at their grammatical context. Some common uses of a colon include:

  • Emphasis
  • Dialogue
  • Introduction of lists or texts
  • Clarification of composition titles

1. Emphasis

A colon is used to call attention to a word or phrase that comes after it, typically at the end of a sentence. In most cases, though, you’d capitalize the first word after the colon if it’s a proper noun, depending on the style guide.

You can also use a colon to join two sentences when the second statement accentuates, clarifies, or expands on the first.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • It was her favorite time of the year: Christmas.
  • I love going to the movies: My favorite genres are romance and comedy.

2. Dialogue

When writing a dialogue with someone, you can use a colon to separate the speaker’s name from their speech. This improves readability and also lays emphasis on the speaker and the statement made.

Here are some examples of how colons are used for dialogue:

Student: Who wrote Hamlet?

Teacher: The famous English dramatist William Shakespeare.

Q: Who wrote There and Back Again?

A: The hobbit Bilbo!

3. Introduce lists or texts

A colon can be used to introduce lists in place of adverbial phrases like “namely,” “that is,” and “for instance.” This isn’t, of course, a hard and fast rule. It all depends on where and how you choose to use a colon and the style guide you want to follow.

Here are some examples of using a colon to introduce lists or text:

  • There are three main elements of good writing: style, elegance, and honesty.
  • He has been to the three best restaurants in Oslo: Red Robin, Olive Garden, and Harry’s.

You may want to check out When to Use an Apostrophe: A Beginner’s Guide to Showing Possession and Omitting Letters

4. Clarify composition titles

Another common use of the colon is to clarify or provide a subtitle to the main title of lectures, movies, books, and other compositions. However, the titles should convey parallel ideas and be able to stand on their own.

Some examples include:

  • “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”
  • “The Era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1945: A Brief History With Documents”

Non-grammatical Uses Of The Colon

Now that you are familiar with the grammatical uses of a colon, let’s walk you through the non-grammatical uses of a colon:


A colon is used to separate minutes from hours when indicating time in writing. There are no spaces on either side of the colon.

Some examples include:

  • 12:20 pm
  • 9:55 am


A colon is also used when expressing ratios between two numbers. There are no spaces preceding and following the colon.

In the example 2:1, there are 3 parts total. There might be 2 bananas and 1 orange in a fruit bowl. The ratio of bananas to oranges is 2:1.

Biblical references

A colon (:) denotes a verse within a certain chapter when citing scripture. Before or after the colon, there is no empty space. Genesis 1:3 (which in the Bible is translated as “chapter 1, verse 3 of the Book of Genesis”) serves as one example.


Additionally, you might want to add a colon (:) in business letters or following greetings. This aids in distinguishing the sender and the topic of the letter.

Some examples include:

  • Dear Mr. Smith:
  • To: Management Department
  • From: Dan Jones

Page numbers (of a cited document)

Lastly, to indicate the page numbers in a volume you’re citing as a source, you can use a colon. This lends credibility to your work because it clearly identifies the source of your material.

As an illustration, consider this: Pages 51 through 67 in The Economist’s 9th volume are referred to as The Economist 9:51-67.

Completing a business report or considering launching a blog can benefit from understanding the usage of punctuation, such as the colon.

Common Mistakes When Using Colon

In addition to the difference in use created by the varying style guides, here are a few ways colons can be misused:

Using a colon to separate a noun from a verb

Colons shouldn’t be placed between a noun and the verb, or between the verb and its object.

For example:

  • An avid traveler, she wants to visit: Italy, Greece, and Russia. (Incorrect)
  • An avid traveler, she wants to visit Italy, Greece, and Russia. (Correct)
  • As an avid traveler, there are three places she wants to visit: Italy, Greece, and Russia. (Correct)

Using a colon to separate a preposition from its object

Colons shouldn’t be placed between a preposition and its object.

For example:

  • He is inspired by the writings of: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare. (Incorrect)
  • He is inspired by the writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare. (Correct)
  • He is inspired by three of the most popular writers of the 20th century: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Shakespeare. (Correct)

Using a colon after the words “including” or “such as”

Don’t use a colon after words like “including,” “for example,” and “such as.” The colon—being a punctuation mark of direction, emphasis, and clarification—replaces them, and stands on its own.

For example:

  • Our college is home to sculptures of famous intellectuals such as Faraday, Einstein, Goethe, and Emerson. (Incorrect)
  • Our college is home to sculptures of famous intellectuals such as Faraday, Einstein, Goethe, and Emerson. (Correct)
  • Our college is home to sculptures of famous intellectuals: Faraday, Einstein, Goethe, and Emerson. (Correct)

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Capitalization and colons

The first word after a colon should always be capitalized, yet this is a frequent source of confusion for many individuals. Despite differing style requirements regarding colons and capitalization (as previously indicated), as a general rule of thumb, one should:

  • Use a lowercase letter for the term following a colon unless the single word is a proper noun (i.e., the specific name of a particular person, place, organization, or thing) or a complete sentence for places that follow a U.K-based style—usually former colonies like India, Australia, and South Africa
  • Capitalize after the colon regardless of places that follow a U.S.-based style.

For example:

  • He had one word for our loss: Laziness. (U.S.-based convention)
  • He had one word for our loss: laziness. (U.K.-based convention)
  • There was only one thing she could do: try again later. (U.K.-based)
  • There was only one thing she could do: Try again later. (U.S.-based)

What Is Semicolon?

The punctuation mark (;) semicolon is used to connect two independent phrases. A set of words that can function as a sentence on their own is known as an independent clause. “I have a dog,” for instance, is an independent clause. Two independent clauses can be joined by a semicolon, as in “I have a dog; I also have a cat.”

Additionally, two related independent clauses that are already closely connected can be joined by semicolons. For instance, “The sun is yellow; the sky is blue.” The semicolon in this instance serves to highlight the close relationship between the two statements.

When To Use A Semicolon

The semicolon is used between independent clauses to show that two ideas are more closely related than is implied by a period, but less than a comma. It’s also used for added clarity in lists.

If this sounds very similar to the colon, that’s because it is! But while colons and semicolons are both used between clauses and in lists, their meanings are different.

But before we get into those differences, we need to talk about the semicolon in a little more detail.

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Why Do People Use Semicolon?

There are two common uses of the semicolon.

1. Semicolon is used to separate items in a series

The components of a list or series can be separated using semicolons if the list already has two or more commas. This makes it clearer which words go together, which helps to clarify the phrase.

For example:

The robbery witnesses included Arnold, the baker; Amy, the jewelry shop owner; and Dan, Amy’s bodyguard.

A semicolon is used to show a relationship between two independent clauses (two sentences that can stand on their own as complete sentences). In this case, a semicolon is used in place of a period when joining sentences.

Often you can substitute a semicolon with the words “and,” “but”, “or” or “because.”

Here are some examples:

My kids love the candy store; it has all their favorite treats.

Some people prefer going to the theater for movies; others prefer watching them from the comfort of their own couch.

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Common mistakes and misuses of a semicolon

The common mistake writers make when it comes to using semicolons is using them with conjunctions. Semicolons are usually used in place of conjunctions, but in a very specific way that aims to clearly demarcate two distinct ideas that you’re trying to express. For example:

  • Some people like going to the movies; but others prefer Netflix. (Incorrect)
  • People looking for a weekend outing still prefer the movies; Netflix is more popular among home watchers. (Correct)

Colon vs. Semicolon: Differences and Similarities

Now that we’ve discussed the basic uses of colons and semicolons, let’s look at their differences.

Both colons and semicolons are used with lists. You can place your colons before the list, to show that what follows adds to what came before. Semicolons are used between list items that already use commas, as a way to clear up confusion.

When used to join clauses, the colon is a mark of direction; the semicolon is primarily a mark of clarification.

A common rule of thumb is to remember that colons replace ideas like “namely,” “that is,” or “for instance.” Semicolons replace conjunctions (and, but, or), and “because.”

Grammatically, only the colon can be used to join a preceding independent clause (a sentence with a subject, a verb, and an object) with a dependent second clause (a sentence that has a subject and a verb but doesn’t express a complete thought).

In contrast, the clauses around a semicolon both have to be independent—meaning they both express a complete thought and can stand alone.

FAQs On When To Use A Semicolon vs Colon

Can you start a sentence with a colon?

Contrary to popular belief, there are several situations wherein starting a sentence with a colon is perfectly acceptable. For example, a colon can start off a sentence when introducing a list, when introducing a quotation, or after an independent clause.

Can you use a semicolon instead of a comma?

Yes, you can use a semicolon instead of a comma in many cases. Semicolons can be used to connect two independent clauses that are closely related in meaning but could stand alone as separate sentences. It is used to replace conjunctions such as ‘like’, ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’.

Can I use a semicolon in joining two sentences?

A semicolon is used to show a relationship between two independent clauses (two sentences that can stand on their own as complete sentences).


Knowing when to use a semicolon versus a colon in writing is crucial for effective communication. By understanding the nuances of these punctuation marks and practicing their proper usage, you can elevate the quality of your writing and convey your thoughts more clearly to your audience. So next time you’re unsure whether to use a semicolon or a colon, refer back to this article for guidance and watch your writing skills improve.


  • uk.indeed.com – Using a semicolon vs colon (explanations and examples)
  • upwork.com – Colon vs. Semicolon: When to Use Each

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