Colon vs. Semicolon: What’s The Difference?

Quick summary

Both the colon and the semicolon are punctuation marks often used to connect related sentences. In general, a colon is typically used to introduce a sentence that clarifies, explains, or elaborates on the sentence that came before it. A semicolon, on the other hand, is typically used to simply connect two related sentences of equal importance. Besides this confusing overlap, colons and semicolons also have some other unique uses, such as the colon’s presence in times and ratios.

The colon and semicolon are two punctuation marks with similar names that often cause a lot of confusion. Because they aren’t used as often as some other punctuation marks, it can be hard to know when you should use one or the other.

In this article, we will explain what colons and semicolons are and how they are used, give tips on how to remember the difference between them, and provide examples that show the different ways that we use them.

colon vs. semicolon

A colon is a punctuation mark that resembles two vertical dots (:). The colon has a variety of different uses. These include:

  • Connecting two related sentences: I had a really great idea: I would become a professional wrestler!
  • Introducing additional information that isn’t a complete sentence: You only need two things to succeed: time and money.
  • Ratios: The odds of winning are 3:1.
  • Time: The movie starts at 7:45 pm.
  • Biblical passages: The preacher quoted John 3:16.

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that resembles a dot over a comma (;). The semicolon has two major uses, one of which is much more common than the other. These are:

  • Connecting two related sentences: Sunny loves eating vanilla ice cream; it was her favorite flavor when she was a kid. 
  • Separating items in a list that have commas: The train travels to Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; and Birmingham, Alabama. 

Most of the uses of the colon and semicolon are pretty clear and don’t overlap. However, both a colon and a semicolon are used to connect related sentences. Generally speaking, the difference is that a colon indicates a closer relationship than a semicolon does. Additionally, a colon places greater emphasis on the second sentence whereas a semicolon usually connects two equal sentences. 

There is also a grammatical difference when using a colon versus a semicolon. Most style guides (such as the American Psychological Association’s) recommend a general rule: If a complete sentence follows a colon, use a capital letter. (While we’ve just demonstrated how to do this correctly, please note and lowercase after a colon in almost all instances per our own style guidelines.)

Learn more about capitalization rules here.

How to remember the difference

Most of the uses of colons and semicolons don’t overlap. For example, only a colon can be used to list a time or ratio. However, both colons and semicolons are used to connect related sentences together.

In general, the colon is used to indicate a closer relationship between two sentences than a semicolon. In practice, a colon is often used to introduce a second sentence that explains or clarifies the previous one. By contrast, a semicolon is used to indicate that two sentences are simply related to each other in some way. For example:

  • There was only one way to defeat the dragon: we needed a magic sword.
  • The dragon was a fearsome beast; it was nearly undefeatable.

In the first example, the colon connects the first sentence to a second sentence that directly clarifies it. The second sentence provides the answer to the problem presented in the first sentence. In the second example, the semicolon simply connects two related sentences that are discussing the same subject. Both of these sentences are about the strength of the dragon, but neither one is more significant than the other.

It is also important to remember that a semicolon always connects two independent clauses. This means that both “sides” of the semicolon can stand alone as grammatically correct sentences. By contrast, a colon can be followed by a phrase or sentence fragment. If a sentence is being followed by an incomplete sentence, you need a colon and not a semicolon.

For example:

  • Incorrect: The recipe uses three main ingredients; eggs, milk, and cheese.
  • Correct: The recipe uses three main ingredients: eggs, milk, and cheese. 

Examples of colons and semicolons used in a sentence

The following examples show different ways that we can use colons and semicolons.

  • There is only one thing that can stop us now: rain.
  • I like eating caramel candies; they remind me of my childhood.
  • The detective raised an important question: how did the thief escape the room?
  • The detective raised an important question; it was a question that no one else thought to ask.

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