Using punctuation correctly can make your written English clearer, easier to read and more elegant. Many English learners are unsure about using semicolons (;) and colons (:) in writing. Using colons and semicolons gives you more control over your written English, and they are not so complicated to use correctly. In this free English video lesson, you can learn more about colons and semicolons, and how to use them.
QUIZ: Using Colons and Semicolons
Test your knowledge of what you learned in the lesson by trying this quiz. You can get help with some questions if you press ‘Hint’. You will get your score at the end, when you can click on ‘View Questions’ to see all the correct answers.
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Question 1 of 20
For the first five questions, decide if the sentences are correct or not.
1. “I love all sorts of music: jazz, hip-hop, reggae, heavy metal …”
Question 2 of 20
2. Martin said; “where are all the vegetables?”
Question 3 of 20
3. “I sent out the invitations; Maria ordered the food.”
Question 4 of 20
4. “The enormous number of tourists in some coastal communities has virtually ruined their charm: nevertheless, these places depend on tourists to sustain their economy.”
Question 5 of 20
5. “Bob works in the marketing department; which is on the sixth floor.”
Question 6 of 20
For the next five questions, decide which answer explains the rule.
6. Why would you use semicolons in a list of things or ideas?
Question 7 of 20
7. If you want to join two sentences together using the words ‘however’, ‘therefore’ or ‘meanwhile’, what should you put before the linking word?
Question 8 of 20
8. After a colon, what type of letter should you write? Choose both if you think they are both possible.
Question 9 of 20
9. If you can use a semicolon, what other punctuation mark can you always use?
Question 10 of 20
10. “John’s behaving really strangely: Amanda’s having an affair.”
What does the colon indicate?
Question 11 of 20
11. For the next five questions, select the sentences that are correct. Sometimes more than one sentence is correct, so select all the correct ones.
Question 12 of 20
12. Select all the sentences that are correct.
Question 13 of 20
13. Select all the sentences that are correct.
Question 14 of 20
14. Select all the sentences that are correct.
Question 15 of 20
15. Select all the sentences that are correct.
Question 16 of 20
For the last five questions, look at a sentence that has incorrect punctuation, and put the correct punctuation in the second sentence so that it’s grammatically correct. Use colons, semicolons, full stops or commas.
16. “Dear Mr Jameson:
Please find attached your completed tax return as instructed.”
= “Dear Mr Jameson
Please find attached your completed tax return as instructed.”
Question 17 of 20
17. “There was a very loud noise in the night, the wind was so strong that it blew the tree down.”
Write the punctuation mark which indicates that the second thing is the reason for the first thing.
“There was a very loud noise in the night the wind was so strong that it blew the tree down.”
Question 18 of 20
18. “I will be away on the following dates. 28 May, 8-10, 15-17 and 22-25 June, and the first half of July.”
= “I will be away on the following dates 28 May 8-10, 15-17 and 22-25 June and the first half of July.”
The full sentence at the start introduces a list. The list contains a date in May, several dates in June separated by a comma, and a period in July.
Question 19 of 20
19. “Teenagers in some Asian countries face a lot of pressure to study hard, meanwhile, in Europe, many young people leave school as soon as possible to get a job.”
= “Teenagers in some Asian countries face a lot of pressure to study hard meanwhile, in Europe, many young people leave school as soon as possible to get a job.”
You can’t write ‘meanwhile’ after a comma.
Question 20 of 20
20. “The people who’ve most inspired me are my parents: the actress, Marilyn Monroe, and the French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.”
= “The people who’ve most inspired me are my parents the actress, Marilyn Monroe and the French military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte.”
What does the colon suggest about the things mentioned before and after it? This should just be a list of unconnected people! The descriptions of two of the people include commas, so how do you separate the items in the list?
We said that a colon has one main job (introducing specific examples or explanations), and one possible use (introducing what someone said).
It’s also important to know when not to use a colon. Here are some common mistakes which English learners sometimes make with colons:
Dear John: Dear John, –> Don’t use a colon at the beginning of a letter or email; use a comma.
Monthly Report January: Monthly Report January –> Don’t use a comma after a title or heading. Generally, you don’t need to use any punctuation after a title or heading.
3. How to Use a Semicolon
Like a colon, a semicolon has one main use: we use it to show a connection between two complete sentences. A semicolon is similar to a full stop.
A semicolon is used instead of a full stop because the writer wants to show that two ideas are more closely connected. It’s generally the writer’s choice whether to use a full stop or a semicolon.
The population of Shanghai is around 24 million; Beijing has around 22 million people.
We knew he was guilty; there was no evidence, however.
In both of these sentences, you can see that:
The two sentences joined with a semicolon are both full sentences. In each case, we could choose to separate the sentences with a full stop.
The two sentences joined with a semicolon are related, in that they are talking about a similar subject.
4. How to Use Connecting Words with Colons and Semicolons
Often, when we want to join two sentences in English, we use a connecting word like and,but or therefore.
When you join two sentences using a semicolon, you don’t need to use a connecting word. However, if you use a connecting word to join two sentences, you sometimes need to use a semicolon and sometimes a comma. It depends what the connecting word is.
To join two sentences using and, or, but, yet or while, you should use a comma.
To join two sentences using however, therefore, nevertheless or meanwhile, you should use a semicolon.
There are other connecting words which require a comma or a semicolon; however, these are the most common.
The population of Shanghai is around 24 million; Beijing has around 22 million people. –> There is no connecting word, so we use a semicolon.
The population of Shanghai is around 24 million, while Beijing has around 22 million people. –> We use while as a connecting word, so a comma is necessary.
The population of Shanghai is around 24 million; however Beijing is slightly smaller, with around 22 million people. –> We use however as a connecting word, so a semicolon is necessary. A full stop would also be possible.
5. How to Use Semicolons in Lists
Semicolons have one other use: they can be used in lists when the items on the lists contain commas.
Usually, when we make a list, we use commas to separate the items on the list:
We need milk, eggs, sugar and flour.
But, if the items on the list are not just words, but phrases which include commas, we use semicolons to separate the items on the list:
We travelled to four cities: Santa Fe, which is in New Mexico; Denver, Colorado; Las Vegas, Nevada; and finally Los Angeles in California.
In this case, because the items on the list are phrases which contain commas, it would not be clear if we also used commas to separate the list items, so we use semicolons instead.
Only three people showed up: Tom, the head of accounting; Maria, who works in the sales department; and Ellie, who is doing an internship here.
Both the colon and the semicolon are used to show a connection between two ideas, but they operate in a very different way. Let’s finish by comparing the colon and the semicolon directly.
We have a problem. He isn’t doing enough to help me.
We have a problem; he isn’t doing enough to help me.
We have a problem: he isn’t doing enough to help me.
In the first example, we use a full stop. This means that the two ideas aren’t necessarily connected. The problem we have and what he is or isn’t doing could be two completely separate things.
In the second example, we use a semicolon. This shows that the two ideas are connected. We have a problem, AND he isn’t doing enough to help me. So, in fact, I have two problems: the original problem and his attitude.
In the third example, we use a colon. This shows that his attitude/behaviour IS the problem. We can rewrite the second and third sentences to make this clearer:
We have a problem; he isn’t doing enough to help me. –> We have a problem, and he isn’t doing enough to help me with this problem.
We have a problem: he isn’t doing enough to help me. –> We have a problem, which is that he isn’t doing enough to help me.