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Grammar Lesson of the Month: Punctuation Basics (the colon vs. the semicolon)

April 2, 2016

This month, CISL Blog’s Grammar Lesson of the Month is taking a detour from the usual articles on English tenses, clauses, and other grammar terms. Instead, April’s lesson will focus on improving your writing through proper use of two important punctuation marks: the colon and the semicolon.

  • colon  :
  • semicolon  ;

What’s the difference, and when do we use them?

COLON :

Use 1: Headings and Descriptive Titles

Examples:

  • “Punctuation 101: How to Use Commas and Apostrophes” (article title)
  • “Love, Loss, and What We Ate: A Memoir” by Padma Lakshmi (book title)

Use 2: Time and Bible verses

Examples:

  • It’s 12:35 right now.
  • He quoted John 3:16 from memory.

Use 3: To list items

Examples:

  • I need you to get the following things from the store: milk, eggs, and orange juice.
  • My mother gave me three things for my birthday: a necklace, a purse, and some money.

Use 4: To emphasize a second part of a sentence

We use this when what comes after the colon is shocking, important, or needs emphasis.

Examples:

  • My father gave me this advice: never lie, because the truth always comes out.
  • The older I get, the more I realize one thing: people never change.
  • Two things in life are certain: death, and taxes.
  • During my wedding, I felt one emotion: happiness.

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SEMICOLON ;

Use 1: To join two complete sentences that have a similar theme.

Examples:

  • I didn’t learn to swim until I was 12; my mother also was older when she learned.
  • Joseph decided to leave a little early; everyone else decided to leave early as well.

Use 2: To join two sentences with a conjunction like HOWEVER, NEVERTHELESS, or THEREFORE.

Examples:

  • Here you can’t drive until you’re 18; therefore, young people use public transport.
  • I couldn’t find the sweater you wanted; however, I found this cute sweater in a different color.
  • He won the lottery; nevertheless, he continued working at his job.

Note: this semicolon is optional. Each of these sentences could also use a comma before and after the conjunction. This is a stylistic choice that you make as a writer!

Use 3: To make detailed lists, usually with cities and states (or cities and countries) in order to clearly separate the locations rather than use many commas.

Examples:

  • For work I’ve traveled to New York, New York; Bangkok, Thailand; Madrid, Spain; and London, England.

Incorporate the colon and semicolon into the writing portion of your IELTS, TOEFL, or Cambridge CAE or FCE exam, and you’ll be sure to gain extra points for creating complex sentences.

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Need more writing tips? Check out some of our other articles:

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