Any post written with the aim of helping people correctly use grammar is wonderful, and I’m in no way complaining, but why do people seem to fall back on the usual “your vs. you’re” or “there vs. their vs. they’re” tips? I think that by focusing so intensely on grammar rules that are obvious and have arguably reached saturation point, we’re ignoring a lot of other rules that are trickier and more confusing.
Are they confusing because they get overlooked, or do they get overlooked because they’re confusing? I don’t know, but whatever the answer is I wanted to give two punctuation marks their dues—and by doing so, make them less confusing.
After all, the semicolon and the colon are pretty important punctuation marks.
And like Ron Burgundy, semicolons and colons have certain legends (most of which are false) surrounding them: they’re interchangeable; they’re confusing; they’re downright peculiar punctuation marks that we don’t need to worry about, etc.
Let’s deconstruct the legends of the colon and the semicolon.
The colon, like most punctuation marks, is a humble little fellow with several very important functions. If the colon was a person, he (or she) would be the antithesis of Ron Burgundy, who has a healthy dose of ego and overblown importance.
A colon follows a complete sentence and introduces a word, phrase, clause, or list. Whatever follows the colon directly relates to the complete sentence that precedes it.
It’s a lot easier to explain and understand colons through examples. Consider this one:
After a long day at work, Ron Burgundy came home and had one thing on his mind: scotch.
“After a long day at work, Ron Burgundy came home and had one thing on his mind” is a complete sentence. I put the colon after this complete sentence. And the word “scotch” that follows the colon directly relates to the complete sentence that comes before the colon. The word “scotch” tells people exactly what Ron Burgundy had on his mind after he came home from a long day at work. It expands upon and adds detail to the complete sentence.
The colon also introduces lists:
Ron loses many things after he gets fired: his job, purpose, friends, and dignity.
“Ron loses many things after he gets fired” is a complete sentence, so I place the colon after it. The list that follows the colon directly relates to the sentence that comes before the colon. It tells people exactly what Ron lost after he got fired.
I would not use a colon like this:
After Ron got fired, he lost: his job, purpose, friends, and dignity.
“After Ron got fired, he lost” is not a complete sentence, so I can’t put a colon after it.
I also would not use a colon like this:
My favorite scenes in ‘Anchorman’ are: the one in which Ron woos Veronica, the one in which Ron throws a burrito, and the one in which Baxter talks to the bear.
“My favorite scenes in Anchorman are” is not a complete sentence, so I can’t follow it with a colon. If I wanted to use a colon, I could reword the sentence to something like, “I have a few favorite scenes in Anchorman: the one in which Ron woos Veronica, the one in which Ron throws a burrito, and the one in which Baxter talks to the bear.”
The colon also introduces quotations:
My mom told me one thing before I went to see Anchorman in theaters: “If there’s too much cursing or indecency, just leave.”
Ron says the same thing before signing off every night: “You stay classy, San Diego.”
(Again, complete sentences precede the colons.)
Finally, a colon follows a sentence that includes the words “the following.”
In his glass case, Ron experiences the following emotions: anxiety, dismay, distress, and confusion.
Should you capitalize the first word after a colon? If the colon does not introduce a complete sentence, don’t capitalize the first word. I would not capitalize the first word after the colon in this sentence:
Veronica Corningstone has a trait I really admire: gumption.
When a complete sentence follows a colon, capitalizing the first word is a stylistic choice. If I had a sentence like this, I could capitalize the first word after the colon if the style guide I was following told me to do so:
Ron Burgundy knew he had only one choice: He had to save Veronica from the Kodiak bear.
The semicolon is a misunderstood punctuation mark. I once had a professor in college tell my English class that we should avoid at all costs using the semicolon in our papers—apparently because the risk of incorrectly using it was too high.
Ron Burgundy doesn’t care about risk or danger, and you shouldn’t either.
It’s OK to use a semicolon as long as you use it correctly. Let’s not outlaw a punctuation mark simply because its instruction manual is a little more complicated than those for the more common punctuation marks like the period. The semicolon’s instruction manual is completely user-friendly.
The semicolon has two purposes: to connect two closely related independent clauses and to separate items in a list.
Let’s focus on the first. Independent clauses have both a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence. If you have two independent clauses that are closely related, you can connect them with a semicolon.
Ron fell apart after he lost his job; he spent all of his time at his local bar.
“Ron fell apart after he lost his job” and “he spent all of his time at his local bar” are independent clauses. Each one has a subject and a verb, and each one can stand alone as a complete sentence. “Ron fell apart after he lost his job” would make sense as a sentence. These two independent clauses are also closely related. The first one states that Ron fell apart, and the second one gives evidence of Ron’s decline. Because these two clauses are so closely related, I can join them with a semicolon.
I would not use a semicolon in a sentence like the following:
Veronica Corningstone reduced Ron to rubble; at the end of the movie, she wound up in a bear enclosure.
These two independent clauses are not related. Veronica reducing Ron to rubble has nothing to do with the unfortunate situation in which she finds herself at the conclusion of Anchorman.
These examples follow the same formula: independent clause + semicolon + independent clause. But you can also join two independent clauses with a semicolon and an independent marker word.
Veronica Corningstone caused Ron to lose his job; however, she and Ron reconciled by the movie’s end.
Veronica is hot and has blonde hair; therefore, Ron hits on her.
Independent marker words include words like “however,” “moreover,” “nevertheless,” “therefore,” and “furthermore.” If I want to use an independent marker word to join two independent clauses, I use the same formula every time: semicolon + independent marker word + comma.
I know you’re growing weary from reading this lengthy post; therefore, I’ll wrap it up soon.
Again, notice that in these examples, the two independent clauses are related. It makes sense to connect them. Independent clauses connected with a semicolon have to be like Ron and scotch or Champ Kid and his cowboy hat or Brian Fantana and arrogance: perfect matches.
And, finally, the semicolon separates items in a list.
I love ‘Anchorman’ so much that I saw it in theatres in Buffalo, New York; Greenwich, Connecticut; Sarasota, Florida; and San Luis Obispo, California.
I would use semicolons in this sentence because the items in the list have commas. If I used commas to separate the items, things could get really confusing.
And that’s a wrap. Here’s to knowledge, the correct use of colons and semicolons, and the release of Anchorman 2.