Writing Tip: (Semi)Colons Aren’t Wack
June 13, 2013
The Lonely Island and Punctuation:
To Semicolon or Colon?
By: Kyle Blochl
“Get ready for a whale of a tale; Shamu,” declares The Lonely Island in their song “Semicolon” from their latest album The Wack Album. (You can check out the full track here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M94ii6MVilw). If you haven’t heard or seen it, the Dudes show how to [incorrectly] use semicolons, only to find that they’ve mistaken them for colons (and thus flunk grammar class). I’ve noticed this sort of thing a lot throughout my years of consulting. Clients use semicolons, or any range of punctuation for that matter, incorrectly simply because it looks right.
It’s good to see writers who are brave enough to incorporate different kinds of punctuation into their writing, but some marks are much better at emphasizing a point or separating out thoughts than others. They can add some often needed variation to break up the monotony, too. However, some writers think that they’re using punctuation correctly, or maybe just think that if they throw a random mark in, that it will make sense.
But don’t be that guy. Don’t jump to conclusions.
Here’s a quick guide to differentiate between semicolons and colons so that you don’t make the same mistake the Dudes did.
A semicolon’s primary use is to break up two related independent clauses (full sentences). For example:
The weather in Boone is ridiculous; although it was 60 degrees this morning, it’s snowing now!
Since both parts are full sentences (have a subject and a predicating verb), you could simply make them two separate sentences. However, because they are related in content, you could use a semicolon to emphasis the fact that they are related. There are other uses for semicolons, but this is the most common instance.
There are two main (and most common) uses for colons: to set up a list and to set up a (long) quotation from another source, scholarly or otherwise. If you’re sharp, which I’m sure you are, you noticed that the previous sentence demonstrated setting up a list. When setting up a list, you should use a full sentence, a colon, and then your list.
I saw several types of precipitation in Boone today: rain, sleet, hail, and snow.
Notice that you don’t need to capitalize the first word in this case. As well, you don’t need to lead into this list with any other words (such as “like” or “such as”). You should be able to take away the list and still have a full sentence.
If you use a colon to set up a quote, you’ll do the exact same thing as if you’re using a list except that you use a capital letter with the quote you introduce.
Looking down the road, he could only say the same thing he said every morning: “It is too cold out here for the Appalcart to be late.”
So, in the song “Semicolon,” which really should be named “Colon,” the Dudes should phrase their sentences as such:
“I’m loud and I’m zipping around: jet ski.”
They do recognize this by the end of the song, of course, but hopefully now you have a little bit better of an understanding of the two.