Writing wrongs #6: how’s your colon? Part 1

Correct use of punctuation is not just essential for clarity – it’s one important way to inject variety into your writing. Variety is the spice of life, y’all. For example:

The dog’s name was Frank. He had black fur. He liked to eat avocados. His best friend was Olivia. She was a Siamese cat.

Staccato sentences like this can be effective in their own right. But compare the above to:

The dog’s name was Frank; he had black fur and liked to eat avocados. His best friend, Olivia, was a Siamese cat.

The second example uses a semicolon and commas to break up the information. I’ll take a look at commas in a future post, but for now we’re going to focus on the awesomeness of the semicolon and how to use it correctly.

Semi-strength

If you think of punctuation marks as different strengths of separation, the semicolon sits between a full stop (a strong mark of separation) and a comma (a weaker one). It can be used when you want to join associated or related clauses that are sentences in their own right.

I live in Norwich; it’s a beautiful city with a fascinating history.
My favourite film is Die Hard; I’m also a fan of the entire Home Alone series.

You could equally write:

I live in Norwich. It’s a beautiful city with a fascinating history.
My favourite film is Die Hard. I’m also a fan of the entire Home Alone series.

But the semicolon helps the reader understand the connection between the clauses, and it adds a certain deliciousness to your writing. Like a mature cheddar. Remember, when connecting clauses with a semicolon, they must be able to stand independently, i.e. be separated by a full stop.

To-do list

Semicolons also come in handy to provide clarity in longer sentences where there’s a list of related points that also include commas. If you were to say:

I’m inviting most of my friends and family, including my best mate from high school, who I haven’t seen in years, Uncle Jimmy, who’s as bald as he is vulgar, all the girls from the knitting club, even the ones who can’t knit very well, a golden retriever from Columbus, Ohio, and my mum, of course.

It’s hard to follow, right? Semicolons create hierarchy so we know which information relates to what.

I’m inviting most of my friends and family, including my best mate from high school, who I haven’t seen in years; Uncle Jimmy, who’s as bald as he is vulgar; all the girls from the knitting club, even the ones who can’t knit very well; a golden retriever from Columbus, Ohio; and my mum, of course.

Semicolons are great, but they can’t do everything. For example, they can’t be used to introduce lists or clauses that aren’t standalone sentences. Luckily, we have colons for that. Colons are pretty great too. Find out more about colons in my next blog post.

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