Introduction to Semicolons and Colons


A semicolon (;) joins independent clauses and separates items in complicated lists.

A colon (:) introduces lists and quotations.

In their most common uses, semicolons and colons follow independent clauses, which have subjects and verbs that can stand alone.


The video discusses each use of the semicolon and colon.

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Semicolons and colons look alike, but their primary functions are different.

Like a comma and a coordinating conjunction, a semicolon can be used to join independent clauses. When it joins independent clauses, a semicolon is often followed by a transitional expression such as however, therefore, or moreover.

A colon can also join independent clauses when the meanings of both clauses are highly related, but this use is less common. Unlike semicolons, a colon cannot be followed by a transitional expression when joining independent clauses.

Colons primarily introduce lists. Semicolons cannot introduce lists, as this example shows.


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Notice that the corrected version places the colon after ingredients and before the first item in the series. (Learn more about using a comma with items in a series.)

Another frequent mistake is to use a colon to introduce a list that is actually a required part of the sentence. In this example, the colon is incorrect.


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To understand why the colon is not needed in this example, compare the word groups that come before the colon in each example:

These word groups have subjects and verbs, but only the first one can stand alone because it conveys a complete thought. In other words, colons are used after independent clauses to introduce lists.

Colons are also used after independent clauses to introduce quotations. Learn more about how colons work with quotation marks and when integrating sources in other units.


The study pages provide more examples for using semicolons and colons. As you read through the study pages and then practice with LearningCurve, make sure the word group before the semicolon or colon is an independent clause; the word group must have a subject and verb that expresses a complete thought.

Checking for independent clauses before semicolons and colons will help you on the post-test (if assigned) and in your own writing.

Don’t forget to work smartly!