This post is Part 2 of my series on stops. You can read Part 1 here.
The semicolon and the colon are the last two stations on the way to the Central Bus Station of Stops – the period.
Semicolons: the California Stop of punctuation
Ever heard of the California Stop? That’s where you get to a stop sign (not a red light) and it’s incredibly obvious that there aren’t any cars coming within half a mile (okay, half a block). So you just slow down, take a quick peek to the left and the right, and go through. This works particularly well at four-way stops.
I grew up in L.A.
I like to think of semicolons as literary California Stops. You aren’t quite prepared to make a full stop, but a comma might cause an accident.
The semicolon has two main functions:
- To break up a complex list that is comprised of a group of mini-entities with their own commas. “To my coming-out party [take that any way you want], I invited Queenie, who is a royal pain in the neck; Aladdin, the genial guy in my Classics course – you know, the blond; Béarnaise, that saucy little baton-twirler; and, because my mother made me, Apollo, the spacey cashier from the grocery store.”
- To separate related clauses (some of which might be fragments). “I keep obsessing about my childhood; I cannot allow myself to go there.”
If you notice, the semicolon has a higher “weight” than a comma. Just as a subhead introduces a new topic more strongly than does a paragraph, when you need a bit more muscle in your sentence, use a semicolon.
Semicolons also work well when you have those “Hey, everyone, I’m about to give you some information!” words; i.e.:
- “It was his raison d’être; literally, his reason for being.”
Truth be told, however, many people now use the comma for these harbinger words and abbreviations: i.e., e.g., viz. (please try not to use this one in the 21st century), as follows, namely, etc.
(Bonus lesson: i.e. is used to explain; e.g. is used to give an example.)
Colons: thank you, Mr. Fowler, for agreeing with me
I was very gratified to discover that Fowler agrees with my description of the colon and its function:
The colon, while considered a type of pause, is, in my opinion, in its own category; sort of a lateral rather than linear move toward a period. Deena Nataf
The time when it was second member of the hierarchy, full stop, colon, semicolon, comma, is past. H. W. Fowler
The colon is used for introducing a list and/or, as Fowler puts it, “Delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words.”
Notice that I also use a colon at the end of one paragraph if I will be delineating or otherwise explaining what comes next.
How does this work in real life?
- She brought way too much for her weekend in Hawaii: three bathing suits, five pairs of shorts, sixteen tubes of suntan lotion, and even a sweater.
- He has a new job: senior marketing director of Coca Cola.
But will it play in
The Chicago Manual of Style starts by presenting the old colon theory, but then segues into modern-day practice:
The colon is used to mark a break in grammatical construction equivalent to that marked by a semicolon, but the colon emphasizes the content relation between the separated elements….to indicate a sequence in thought between two clauses that form a single sentence or to separate one clause from…an illustration or amplification of the first….In contemporary usage, however, such clauses are frequently separated by a semicolon or are treated as separate sentences.
In other words, out with the old and in with the new! Take a look a the following:
- Mother didn’t take her happy pills this morning: she may start throwing things after lunch.
- Mother didn’t take her happy pills this morning; she may start throwing things after lunch.
- I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument: the banjo, ukelele, and tenor sax are on the top of my list.
- I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument. The banjo, ukelele, and tenor sax are on the top of my list.
- I’ve always wanted to play a musical instrument; the banjo, ukelele, and tenor sax are on the top of my list.
When you weave your writing tapestry, remember that the correctness of each and every stitch is what will create a thing of beauty for you and your readers.
Think of punctuation as a tool for helping your readers understand what you are trying to say, and remember that a misused punctuation mark can confuse your readers and/or create a different meaning to your prose altogether.
Questions? Comments? Diplomatically worded disagreements? Let me know in the comments below.