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Semicolons and Colons: Writing Skills Success Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this concept can be found at Semicolons and Colons: Writing Skills Success Practice Exercises.

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

—Lewis Thomas, English scientist (1913–1993)

Lesson Summary

Is it the colon that links and the semicolon that introduces? Or is it the other way around? You will learn exactly which does what in this lesson.

Using semicolons to separate independent clauses is described in Avoiding Faulty Sentences: Writing Skills Success Study Guide. In this lesson, you'll review that use of semicolons, as well as the use of some of the other punctuation marks. You will learn how to use semicolons with conjunctive adverbs and when to separate items in a series with semicolons. You will also learn to use colons in business communications and other settings.

Begin by seeing how much you know. Insert semicolons and colons where you think they are needed in the Problem column. Check your answers against the correct version in the Solution column below as you go.

Problem

Dear Mr. Powell

This letter is a formal complaint regarding service our company received from your representatives at 130 P.M. on January 26, 1996. These are the procedures for which we were billed a complete scotomy, a procedure to rid the machinery of electrostatic material a comprehensive assessment, a procedure for checking all mechanical and electronic parts in the machinery and a thorough cleaning, a procedure necessary to keep the machine running efficiently.

This may be what the representative reported to have done however, only the first procedure in the list was finished. Only one of the three items was completed therefore, we should be refunded the amount charged for the other two services.

We are filing this complaint in accordance with your technical manual McDounah New Age Electronics A Complete Manual. This information is found in Volume 2, page 27 "Customers dissatisfied with our service for any reason have the right to file a full complaint within 10 (ten) days from the date of service. Such a complaint must be addressed in writing to Mr. Douglas Powell, Service Manager McDounah New Age Electronics Demming, Delaware. Mr. Powell will respond within two days to remedy the alleged problem or to refund the amount in question."

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Semicolons

There are three different cases in which a semicolon is used to separate independent clauses.

Solution

Dear Mr. Powell:

This letter is a formal complaint regarding service our company received from your representatives at 1:30 P.M. on January 26, 1996. These are the procedures for which we were billed: a complete scotomy, a procedure to rid the machinery of electrostatic material; a comprehensive assessment, a procedure for checking all mechanical and electronic parts in the machinery; and a thorough cleaning, a procedure necessary to keep the machine running efficiently.

This may be what the representative reported to have done; however, only the first procedure in the list was finished. Only one of the three items was completed; therefore, we should be refunded the amount charged for the other two services.

We are filing this complaint in accordance with your technical manual McDounah New Age Electronics: A Complete Manual. This information is found in Volume 2, page 27: "Customers dissatisfied with our service for any reason have the right to file a full complaint within 10 (ten) days from the date of service. Such a complaint must be addressed in writing to Mr. Douglas Powell, Service Manager; McDounah New Age Electronics; Demming, Delaware. Mr. Powell will respond within two days to remedy the alleged problem or to refund the amount in question."

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

  • To separate independent clauses joined without a conjunction. This rule may seem familiar to you because it was also included in the last lesson.

    Examples:

      Three doctors began the research project; only one completed it.
      Discard the packaging; save the paperwork for accounting.
      The hour is over; it's time to stop working.
  • To separate independent clauses that contain commas even if the clauses are joined by a conjunction. The semicolon helps the reader see where the break in thought occurs.

    Example:

      The team needed new equipment, updated training manuals, and better professional advice; but since none of this was provided, they performed as poorly as they had in the previous competition.
  • To separate independent clauses connected with a conjunctive adverb. Follow the adverb with a comma. A conjunctive adverb is an adverb that joins independent clauses. Conjunctive adverbs are punctuated differently from regular conjunctions. The first independent clause is followed by a semicolon; the conjunctive adverb is followed by a comma.

    Examples:

      Our copy of the central warehouse catalogue, arrived after the budget deadline; consequently, our requests are late.
      In the book An American Childhood, Annie Dillard recounts her experiences as a child; furthermore, she questions and speculates about the meaning of life.

Here is a complete list of words used as conjunctive adverbs.

accordingly instead
besides moreover
consequently nevertheless
furthermore otherwise
hence therefore
however thus

Many people confuse subordinating conjunctions, such as because, though, until, and while, with the conjunctive adverbs previously mentioned. The difference is important. A clause beginning with a subordinating conjunction is only a subordinate clause; it can't stand alone as a sentence. A clause with a conjunctive adverb is an independent clause, which should be separated from another independent clause with a period and capital letter or with a semicolon.

Here's a trick to determine whether the word that begins a clause is a conjunctive adverb. If you can move the word around within the clause, it's a conjunctive adverb. If you can't, it's probably a subordinating conjunction. For example, here are two main clauses:

      My paycheck was delayed. I couldn't pay my rent on time.

Here are two ways of joining those two main clauses:

      My paycheck was delayed; therefore, I couldn't pay my rent on time.
      I couldn't pay my rent on time because my paycheck was delayed.

Check whether the first version uses a conjunctive adverb. Can you move therefore around in its clause? Yes, you could say, "I couldn't, therefore, pay my rent on time." So therefore is a conjunctive adverb.

Use the same test to see whether because is a conjunctive adverb that should come after a semicolon. Can you move because around in its clause: "My paycheck because was delayed"? No. So because is a subordinating conjunction, and the clause it introduces is not a main clause.

There's one more way a semicolon is used to separate:

  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a series if the items contain commas. Unlike items in a series separated by commas, a semicolon is used even when there is a conjunction.

    Examples:

      The dates we are considering for our annual party are Thursday, June 5; Saturday, June 7; Sunday, June 8; or Monday, June 9.
      When we go to the lake, I am sure to take a pizza pan, a popcorn popper, and pancake griddle; fishing tackle, life jackets, and ski equipment; and puzzles, cards, board games, and my guitar.
      The expansion committee is considering locations in Columbus, Ohio; Orange, California; Minton, Tennessee; and Jacksonville, Florida.

 

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