Each time I sit down to write a punctuation column, I find myself second-guessing the topic. Do readers really want to read about commas, or dashes, or apostrophes? Shouldn’t I be able to think of something more stimulating to write about?
But I am always pleasantly surprised at the number of readers who contact me to thank me for these punctuation refreshers and to suggest additional punctuation-related topics. Recently, I received a couple of requests for a column covering the proper use of colons and semicolons, and I am happy to oblige.
Whenever I set out to write about a particular punctuation mark, I turn first to the wit and wisdom of Lynne Truss in her now-classic Eats Shoots & Leaves. Truss devotes an entire chapter to colons and semicolons, using the title “Airs and Graces.” Truss writes,
In this chapter I want to examine punctuation as an art. Naturally, therefore, this is where the colon and semicolon waltz in together, to a big cheer from all the writers in the audience. Just look at those glamorous punctuation marks twirling in the lights from the glitter-ball: are they not beautiful? Are they not graceful?1
Truss describes the dynamic effects of the semicolon and the colon this way: “Like internal springs, they propel you forward in a sentence towards more information, and the essential difference between them is that while the semicolon lightly propels you in any direction related to the foregoing (‘Whee! Surprise me!’), the colon nudges you along lines already subtly laid down.”2
I love the eloquent way Truss characterizes these two punctuation cousins, and if space permitted, I would share more of her colorful observations. But I will move on to the more practical part of the column: the rules of usage for colons and semicolons.3
There are several proper uses of colons, most of which signal that material follows.
- Use a colon to introduce a list, especially after expressions such as the following or as follows.
Example: We can assert the following claims: negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium.
- Use a colon to signal that clarifying information will follow.
Example: The jury’s verdict came swiftly: guilty on all counts.
- Use a colon to introduce a formal quotation when the introduction is an independent clause.4
Example: The witness answered the question without hesitation: “I distinctly heard two gunshots.”
- Do not use a colon after a verb or preposition.
Incorrect example: Present at the hearing were: the plaintiff, the defendant, and their respective counsel.
Incorrect example: I have located precedent from: the United States Supreme Court, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.
- Do not use a colon after the expressions for example, namely, including, or such as.
Incorrect example: Numerous charges stemmed from the incident, including: assault, battery, and false imprisonment.
Place one space after a colon. When the material after the colon is not a complete sentence, the first word after the colon should begin with a lowercase letter. When the material after the colon is a complete sentence, the common approach is to begin the first word after the colon with a capital letter.
A semicolon is most commonly used “to separate items of equal status, such as two independent clauses.”5
- Use a semicolon to connect two closely related independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction such as and or but.
Example: We disagree with the jury’s verdict; there simply was no evidence to support it.
- Use a semicolon between two independent clauses joined by a transitional word or phrase such as however, for example, or therefore. Use a comma after the transitional word.
Incorrect example: The witness is unavailable, therefore the deposition must be postponed.
Correct example: The witness is unavailable; therefore, the deposition must be postponed.
- Use a semicolon to separate items in a list containing commas.
Example: The defendant confessed to crimes in Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C.
- Use a semicolon to separate items in a list introduced by a colon.
Example: The elements of negligence are as follows: duty; breach of duty; proximate cause; and damages.6
Yes, these rules are rather dry. But using colons and semicolons correctly can add a rhythm to our writing that will make it more pleasant to read.7 As Truss concludes at the end of her chapter on colons and semicolons, “Perspicuity and beauty of composition are not to be sneezed at in this rotten world. If colons and semicolons give themselves airs and graces, at least they also confer airs and graces that the language would be lost without.”8 NCL
Laura Graham, Assistant Director of Legal Analysis, Writing & Research, is a professor of legal writing at Wake Forest University School of Law, where she has taught for 17 years. She welcomes email from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation 105 (2003).
2 Id. at 114.
3 For these rules, as always, my “go-to” resource is Deborah E. Bouchoux’s Aspen Handbook for Legal Writers: A Practical Reference (3d ed. 2013).
4 An independent clause is one that is a complete sentence (that is, it can stand by itself). Id. at 48.
5 Id. at 49.
6 This sentence could be made more concise by eliminating “as follows” and simply listing the items, separated by commas.
7 As is often true in legal writing, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to using these punctuation marks. In fact, Truss calls semicolons “dangerously habit-forming. Truss, supra note 1, at 115. So avoid overusing colons and semicolons.
8 Id. at 130-31