Proper Punctuation – Colon

T4W Using the Colon and the Semicolon

There are two things that often get confused in writing: a colon and a semicolon. A colon tells the reader that what comes next is directly related to what they read before the colon. What comes next describes, clarifies, explains, lists, or gives an example of the first part of the sentence. Remember, you can only use a colon if you have just written a complete sentence. A semicolon joins two related clauses; it’s like a link between the first and the second clause. Using proper punctuation is important so that you can get the information to your reader in the clearest way possible.

Use a colon in these examples:

  • I have three favorite foods: pizza, ice cream, and chocolate.
  • She knew she would see one of three things when she looked outside: sunshine, rain, or snow.
  • There was always something delicious for breakfast: blueberry pancakes or chocolate waffles.

Use a semicolon in these examples with two related clauses:

  • He walked slowly to the door; it creaked as he opened it.
  • I could hardly wait for the party; it was going to be great!

Colons are also used after the salutation in a letter and to show time:

  • Dear Miss Little:
  • 4:15 PM

Time4Writing provides practice in this area. View a sample resource from our High School Essay Writing course below or browse other related courses.

Using the Colon and the Semicolon


  1. Use the colon to introduce:
    • A list: Campers are expected to provide the following: sheets, blankets, and towels.
    • A long quotation of one or more paragraphs (block quotations which are indented from the body of the rest of the text).
    • A formal question or quotation: The question is: what is to be done? He opened the meeting with the words: “War is upon us!”
    • A clause following a sentence which explains the sentence: His motives are clear: he intends to become a dictator.
    • Additional material after a word or phrase: For sale: mountain cabin
  2. Use a colon to emphasize a following appositive:
    • King Midas cared for only one thing: gold.
  3. Use a colon after the salutation of a business letter:
    • Dear Ms. Weiner:
  4. Use a colon to separate parts of titles, references, and numerals:
    • Title: Principles of Mathematics: An Introduction
    • Reference: Luke 3:4-13
    • Numerals: 8:15 P.M.
  5. Use a colon to separate the name of a character from his/her lines in a play script:
    • Macbeth: She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word.
  6. In footnotes and bibliographies to separate the place of publication from the publisher, use a colon:
    • Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill


  1. Use a semicolon between two independent clauses (sentences) which are not joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet).
    • People are usually willing to give advice; they are much less inclined to take it. In the sentence above, the semicolon is interchangeable with a period. When you use a semicolon this way, you should be sure that the relationship between the two sentences is clear.
  2. Use a semicolon between two independent clauses (sentences) which are joined by a conjunctive adverb (however, nevertheless, furthermore, then, therefore, moreover, thus, etc.)