How to Use Semicolon and Colon in An Essay

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One of the common problems many students face when writing essays, whether academic or otherwise, is the correct use of punctuation marks. Examples of periods that could bring confusion when one ought to use them are colon, semicolon, dashes, hyphens, apostrophe, quotation marks, period or full stop, etc.

Sometimes you can wonder what the use of punctuation is all about if you can simply write without them and be done with the whole thing. While that could be a fun thought and probably solve the major problem of writing altogether, punctuation marks are necessary evils, more or less depending on how you choose to look at it.

In this article, you will learn why we use punctuation in writing and everything you need to know about the use of colons and semicolons in sentences.

Importance of using colon and semicolon in writing

  1. One major reason why we use colon and semicolon in writing essays is to make reading flow. For example, when you speak, you take brief pauses when you are making a list or after saying a complete sentence. Even when the sentence is incomplete, sometimes you still pause. Now, imagine writing and not putting any form of pause in the write-up. Instead of making sense, you could just end up confusing the reader. This is because whether you like it or not, you take pauses when reading even when not reading aloud. For this reason, then, punctuation marks make a writeup easier to read and understand as though the writer is speaking directly to you.
  2. Makes complex sentences easier to understand. Complex sentences are a major part of essay writing especially when you have to make a list of items, clauses, or sentences. With the correct use of commas, colons, and semicolons, the reader can understand what you are trying to pass across.

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is designated by the sign ‘;’ and it is generally used when there are two sentences that should go together but cannot; most especially when you cannot reasonably use any type of conjunction to join the two sentences. So, when you have two main clauses, you can use a semicolon to separate them instead of a conjunction.

There are rules guiding the use of a semicolon in a sentence and that will be discussed in the next subheading.

What is a colon?

The colon is designated by the sign ‘:’. Colon is used to clarifying a statement or for emphasis. What do we mean by this? When writing a sentence, for example, you could want to make a list to clarify what you meant.

In the sentence Today can simply be called a beautiful day: It is cool, bright, and airy; the colon depicts what makes the day beautiful. If you were to say this instead: Today is a beautiful day; the sun is shining, the fields are green, and everything is just so colorful; replacing the semicolon with a colon will be just wrong.

So, when using a colon, think of it as though it is replacing the words ‘as follows’, ‘like’, ‘that is’, ‘for example’, ‘namely’, ‘thus’, or any other words like them that precede making a list.

For example, let’s say you wanted to list the steps to make a cake. You would use a colon like this: To make a cake, follow these steps: preheat the oven, mix ingredients, pour batter into pan, and bake. See how the colon is used before the list begins? This lets your reader know that what follows is a list of items.

The same can be done with emphasis. For example, I am not going outside: it’s raining. In this sentence, the colon is used for emphasis on the fact that you are not going outside because it is raining – as if to say ‘even though it is raining…’

A colon can also be used to make a statement in dialogues.

How to use a semicolon in a sentence

Now that you know that a semicolon is used when you have two seemingly disjointed sentences that should have gone together, let us check out when to use a semicolon in a sentence. The rule is simple: if you can replace the semicolon with a period, then use a semicolon. If you can’t, then don’t.

  • You can use a semicolon to replace conjunctions and conjunctive verbs like but, while, and, therefore, whereas, however, etc. For example: Locating the flower was very difficult; it was hidden in the crevices of the mountain.
  • You can use a semicolon to separate out items or sentences that contain a comma in them already to make reading it flow better. For example, The available dates and locations given to us were 12th January, Civic Centre; 15th June, Conventional Centre; and 23rd October, World Congress Centre.
  • Semicolons are also used when separating sentences that contain a conjunctive word that is followed by a comma. For example, Fighting cancer is an intense battle; however, it is a battle that can sometimes be won.

When not to use semicolons

As much as there are correct ways to use semicolons, there are also incorrect ways to use them. Simply because the punctuation mark is good to make complex sentences have more meaning does not mean it can be used haphazardly. Check out the following instances when semicolons cannot be used with examples.

  • A semicolon cannot be used to join a main clause and a list of items.

Example: Try eating some fruits; apples, cucumber, strawberry, and pineapple are some of the good ones is a better sentence structure than I went shopping for some fruits: banana, oranges, and grapes.

The first sentence in the above example is suggesting the types of fruits that can be eaten and each of the complex sentences can stand alone; the second sentence had more meaning joined to the second one with a semicolon though. In the second sentence though, the list of fruits has no meaning standing alone.

  • A semicolon cannot be used to join a dependent clause with another clause.

Example: While trying to cross the road, she was absentminded and did not see the speeding car coming towards her is a much better sentence than While trying to cross the road; she was absentminded and did not see the speeding car coming towards her

  • Only capitalize a word that appears after a semicolon if it is a proper noun.

Example: Crying all day is unhealthy; You stand the chance of having a migraine is incorrect but I wish I could do an intervene; Mary was unjustly punished.

  • Never join clauses that have no bearing on each other with a semicolon. As mentioned in the definition, you can easily use a semicolon in place of conjunctions and conjunctive verbs. That should always ring in your mind.

Example: I ran all the way here; sitting down now is just a logical thing to do is a better sentence than We used to be playmates while growing up; I am currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

The first statement above makes more sense while the second one has two clauses that do not relate to each other.

  • Always know when you should be using a comma and when a semicolon is needed. We will endeavor to shed light on the differences between the two much later. But it is safe to say here that while it seems like both can be used interchangeably, that assertion is simply not true.

When to use the colon in a sentence

The following are ways in which you can use a semicolon in a sentence. Some of these have been discussed earlier while talking about semicolons but we will expatiate further here.

  • Use a colon to make a list for clarifying something.

Example: Types of punctuation marks used in sentences: exclamation, period or full stop, question mark, quotes, apostrophe, or comma.

  • A colon can be used to emphasize a statement or a topic.

Example in a statement: There are different types of painting mediums to choose from: charcoal, oil, watercolor, acrylic, ink, etc.

Example in a topic: The Rise in Unemployment: How it Affects the Economy.

  • You can also use a semicolon to designate preceding statements made by individuals in dialogue.


DAD: We are almost there.

ME: Can you open the windows a little? I’m suffocating here at the back with the AC off.

MUM: Ignore him, dear. He is just a whiny little boy.

When not to use a colon in a sentence

There are wrong ways to use a colon in a sentence that just renders the writing meaningless and confusing.

  • Never use a colon in place of a semicolon. They may look alike but they perform different functions. Check out the examples of when to use a colon.
  • Never use a colon after the words such as, for example, etc. These are words that colons replace in statements.
  • Do not use a colon to join two clauses or sentences. Use a semicolon instead.
  • Do not use a colon in place of a comma (see the next subheading for details).
  • Never use a colon in front of a preposition. For example, We can screen out the students by: age, height, complexion, eye color, and extracurricular activities is incorrect. It should rather be We can screen out the students by age, height, complexion, eye color, and extracurricular activities.


As much as it could seem daunting to understand how and when to use punctuation in a sentence, there is beauty in using them correctly. Getting your article or essay accepted to get your desired grade goes beyond having a great idea or being articulate. This is where UWritersPro comes in. our writers are trained and experienced to help make your essay grammatically sound. Give us a try today.


Can a dash be used in place of a colon?

Colons are used to make emphasis or precede a list. Therefore, if all you are after is the emphasis, you can use an em dash instead of a colon. An em dash (—) is used for emphasis so you can use both interchangeably when that is the case. A dash (–) on the other hand can be used when you want to make a list.

When can I use a hyphen or a dash?

A hyphen is also used in some compound words, but not all of them. For example, you might see “mother-in-law” written as two words or with a hyphen. In this case, the meaning is the same either way. However, when a dash is used in place of a hyphen, it changes the meaning of the word entirely.

For example, “I have a headache” means something different than “I have a head-ache” even though they are spelled similarly.

When is an em dash useful in a statement?

Em dashes are used to emphasize statements. You can use it to break up an emphatic statement within a statement or to emphasize a preceding statement.

For example, The applicant—who was clearly unqualified for the job—was hired anyway. In this case, the em dash emphasizes the preceding statement by showing that the hire was made despite the applicant’s unsuitability for the role.

Another example is, The cat slept through the storm—unlike the dog. In this sentence, the em dash is used to emphasize that the cat slept through the storm while the dog did not.

Can colon and semicolon be used interchangeably?

The simple answer to this question is no. While a colon can be used to separate two clauses, one of the clauses must contain a list or noun. The semicolon on the other hand is used in place of conjunction or conjunctive verb, or to simply join two sentences that complement each other.

One example of how a semicolon can be used is found in this sentence: “I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go to the party tonight.” In this sentence, the semicolon separates two complete thoughts that are closely related. The first thought explains why the person cannot attend the party, and the second gives additional information about the test.

Here are other examples of when to use each: I have a lot of hobbies: biking, hiking, and swimming. COLON: Used to separate two clauses when the second clause lists items or is a noun. The meeting starts at 9:00am sharp; please be on time. SEMICOLON: Used in place of conjunction or conjunctive verb.

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