Pondering Punctuation: Colons and Semicolons

I mentioned previously that my husband and I have sons who are twins, but unfortunately I didn’t have space in that post to talk more about them. They’re grown up now (I can’t believe they’ll be 30 in July!) but raising them was quite an experience. We gave them similar names, and they look a lot alike, though not as much now as when they were kids. Yet despite having many common interests, they have distinctly different personalities. 

3 - First birthday
First birthday, July 1991

Which brings us to the latest installment of our punctuation survey: the colon and the semicolon, which would seem to be the twins of the punctuation world. Like our sons, they have similar names. And each is made up of two other punctuation marks: a colon is two periods stacked up, while a semicolon is a period over a comma. But despite the similarities, colons and semicolons are used very differently.

First, a quick grammar definition which will help with the following explanations. Remember that for a string of words to be considered a complete sentence, it needs a subject (an actor) and a verb (an action or a linking word). Another name for a sentence is an independent clause:

Scientific researchers often use identical twins as subjects.  

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Some cultures consider the birth of twins to be good luck.

Be on the lookout—you might see some of these independent clauses again soon. And now that we have that out of the way, let’s get started.

The easiest way to remember what a colon does it to think of it as meaning “as follows.” You can use one at the end of an independent clause to indicate that the words following will explain, illustrate, or amplify what you said before the colon. The material after the colon can be another sentence or a list:

Scientific researchers often use identical twins as subjects: their matching DNA profiles allow the scientists to control for one variable.  

Parents need three attributes for raising twins: flexibility, a positive attitude, and endless patience. 

And as a matter of fact, you can even include the words “as follows,” or other such introductory words, before a colon:

I always give new parents of twins the following advice: don’t sweat the small stuff, and remember that most of it is small stuff.

Just one caution with the colon: always remember that it should come after an independent clause—that is, a compete sentence. Don’t use a colon when you have a list within a sentence:

Incorrect: Our sons’ common interests are: languages, video games, and martial arts.

This is incorrect because the bit before the colon—Our sons’ common interests are—is not a complete sentence without a complement after the linking verb are. Here’s how it should look:

Correct: Our sons’ common interests are languages, video games, and martial arts.

14 - Christmas
Christmas 1997 or 1998-ish

While the colon is pretty straightforward, the semicolon can be a bit trickier because its use is often optional. Some writers love it, while others never use it at all. For hardcore grammar nerds (like me) there’s even a whole book about the use and abuse of the semicolon throughout the history of English literature and prose. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.)  

So let’s take it one step at a time. The easiest way to use a semicolon is to join two independent clauses without a joining word (conjunction) when the writer wants to make a close connection between them:

Raising twins wasn’t easy; I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNA; fraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

In both these cases you can see why the writer would opt to link the independent clauses; they are clearly related. But you could instead join them with a comma and a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so):

Raising twins wasn’t easy, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, but fraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

Or you could make them two separate sentences:

Raising twins wasn’t easyI can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNAFraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

So this is a stylistic choice. All these options are grammatically acceptable, but each has a different feel to it. To me, the last option—making them two sentences—seems choppy. But sometimes that might be the effect you want to create.

You can also include an introductory word or phrase after the semicolon and before the second sentence. Words and phrases commonly used in this situation include however, therefore, indeed, thus, hence, accordingly, besides, that is, for example, namely, etc. Be sure to include a comma after the introductory word or phrase and before the second sentence:

Some cultures consider the birth of twins to be good luck; however, others regard it as a bad omen.

Our sons have rather different personalities; nevertheless, they are very close.

The last main use of the semicolon is for a series of phrases which contain internal punctuation, usually commas. (And yes, I couldn’t resist sneaking in more colons as well):

My mother-in-law sewed many wonderful things for the boys: their white, traditional christening gowns; little sports coats in their customary colors—one red, one blue; and several Halloween costumes.

Our sons had an interesting assortment of possessions growing up, such as: sturdy, slanted drawing boards; comfortable, black, waterproof boots for playing outside; and a vast collection of Lego blocks.

Once again, this is not mandatory; if the list is unambiguous punctuated with commas, you can do it that way instead:

Our sons had an interesting assortment of possessions growing up, such as: sturdy, slanted drawing boards, comfortable, black, waterproof boots for playing outside, and a vast collection of Lego blocks.

20 - Koln cropped
Spring 2014

Currently the boys live in separate states and can get together only every few months. Since I can’t reunite them right now, I’m going to at least get the punctuation twins back together. The one remaining similarity between the colon and the semicolon is that they are both placed outside quotation marks and parentheses: 

Here’s an interesting fact about the two members of the 80s group The Proclaimers, whose one big hit was “I’m Gonna Be”: they are identical twin brothers.

My mother-in-law sewed many wonderful things for the boys: their white, traditional-style christening gowns; little sports coats in their customary colors (one red, one blue); and several Halloween costumes.

Hopefully this has helped demystify the colon and semicolon at least a little bit—but please feel free to contact me at steph@tightprose.com if you have any questions! They’re really not so daunting, and remember too that a semicolon is usually optional. If you choose to join the ranks of those who don’t use it, you’ll be in good company with writers such as George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just…two! 

Pondering Punctuation: Exclamation Points and Question Marks

About a week ago, just as some of the coronavirus restrictions began to loosen up here in Florida, my husband and I welcomed a new member of the family:

Cutest closeup ever

This is Maddie the Labrador Retriever, who is now ten weeks old, and a real sweetie! My husband and I haven’t had dogs for a while since we’d been moving around, but we’ve trained many puppies over the years. One part of it that came right back to me was how much your tone of voice matters: “Come!” should always be happy and enthusiastic; “No!” always needs to be very emphatic and serious.  

So it seems fitting to continue our punctuation survey this time around with two marks that, in addition to being straightforward and easy to use, are important in conveying the writer’s intended tone of his or her words: exclamation points and question marks.

We’re all familiar with both of them. When we were learning to write as children, we probably learned them right after the period; it’s easy to grasp the idea of a marking to convey tone of voice. I’ve always been fascinated with the convention in Spanish, where, in addition to an exclamation point or question mark at the end of the sentence, there’s also an upside-down one at the beginning, so the reader knows right away how the sentence should be read. (By the way, does anyone know if any other languages do that? Just my linguistic curiosity.)

Anyway, let’s start with the exclamation point. Its name tells you exactly how to use it: to mark an exclamation—any kind of utterance that is loaded with strong emotion:

Our new puppy is so cute!

I can’t believe all the toys available for dogs these days!

Just one word of caution when it comes to exclamation points: there has been a growing tendency in the digital age to overuse them, thus robbing them of their punch. It’s an easy habit to fall into—but at least in more formal writing, it’s best to use exclamation points sparingly.

The name of the question mark also speaks for itself: it’s used to indicate a direct question:

Do you like dogs?

How much should I feed my puppy?

You can even use a question mark in the middle of a sentence when embedding a direct question—that is, if the question is in the same form as when it was originally asked. The remainder of the sentence doesn’t need a capital letter:

Is it a good time to get a dog? they wondered.

However, if it’s an indirect question—a paraphrase, in other words—no question mark is necessary:

They wondered whether it was a good time to get a dog.

Besides being indicators of tone of voice, exclamation points and question marks have something else in common: they are both treated the same way when it comes to combining them with quotation marks or parentheses. They are placed inside if they apply to the material inside the quotes or parentheses, but if not, then they go outside. Some examples will make this clearer:

The vet asked, “Has your puppy been sleeping well?”

In this sentence, the material inside the quotes is a question, so the question mark goes inside. Compare to:

 Have you read that blog post called “Training Your New Puppy”?

Here, the title of the post is “Training Your New Puppy” (no question mark). The question is whether the reader has read the article, so the question mark goes outside the quotes.

Same goes with parentheses:

Maddie loves her new teddy bear toy. (She never lets it out of her sight!)

The exclamation mark belongs with the second sentence inside the parentheses. But:

Puppies love to chew (maybe because they’re teething)!

Here the exclamation mark emphasizes the whole sentence, but especially the first part of it. The material inside the parentheses is just a speculation on the reason for the chewing and would not by itself require an exclamation mark.

So be on the lookout for interesting uses of exclamation points and question marks “in the wild.” Can you find examples of them inside and outside of quotes and parentheses? Please share your examples below! 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think Maddie needs to go outside. 😊