Colon and the Semicolon – When to Use Which

We were all probably taught in school, the importance of punctuation and how a misplaced or absent punctuation mark can alter the meaning of a sentence completely. Among the many different types of punctuation marks – the full stop, the comma, the question mark, the exclamation mark, hyphen, brackets, there are also the colon and the semicolon. In this article, we look at how and when to use the colon and semicolon.

Difference between colon (:) and semicolon (;)

A colon (two dots one on top of the other) is used to indicate a pause before giving related information and helps to separate a general statement from facts that follow. A semicolon (a dot on top with a comma below) is used to join two sentences without the use of conjunctions. It is a demarcation in the sentence more pronounced than a comma, but not as pronounced as a full stop.

When to use colon?

Colons are most frequently used to introduce an itemized list or to offer an explanation, definition or description. The colon is also used to indicate the ratio between two things, to indicate the time, and may also be used in titles and subtitles.


  • There are several things I have to pick up at the store: milk, eggs, bread, jam and some detergent.
  • The time is 18:30.
  • The ratio of protein to carbs should be 1:2 for good health.
  • Sweet Treats: Recipes for the Chocoholic (title).

When to use semicolon?

Semicolons are used to join together two independent clauses or sentences or to conjoin two ideas without conjunctions. It is a device that helps to clarify the relationship between the two clauses. So while the two clauses could function quite well independently of each other, the semicolon helps to conjoin them and create a relationship. Semicolons also help create a sense of contrast, comparison, irony or humor.


  • Put on a coat; its cold outside.
  • I would tell you; should you listen.
  • She drives a Mercedes; her husband has a humble old Ford.
  • You seem to have the right answer; mine doesn’t seem accurate.

Both these punctuation marks are devices that serve a purpose. So, avoid using them indiscriminately. Using them unnecessarily can obscure the meaning and make sentences overly long and difficult to comprehend. Use of too many of these punctuations can lead to run on sentences which should be avoided to the extent possible.

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