Colons and semicolons

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Henry Watson Fowler* said we should use a colon ‘to deliver the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words’. So use them:

To introduce a list

‘The Writer does four things: writing, thinking, training and naming.’

To add to what’s gone before

‘It was a tough job spec: applicants had to have at least three years’ experience and an appreciation of salted caramel ice cream.’

To introduce other sentences/questions

‘Alex had to choose: The latest Marian Keyes for book club? Or something more high-brow?’

For steps (also uses semicolons – see below)

‘If you’re the last person out of the office, follow these steps: first, rejoice at having finished for the day, even if it is five hours after everyone else has left; second, close the windows; third, switch off the lights; fourth, set the alarm.’



Use a semicolon to link two separate sentences that are closely related, eg ‘Ella was back at work today; she’d spent the previous week by the seaside’.

Complicated lists

Use it in a list that already contains commas, eg ‘On Harry’s desk you’ll find: The Oxford English Dictionary, for his wordy needs; the remnants of a pot plant, long-since dead; and an empty mug, crying out to be filled up with tea (milk, no sugar).’

*A guru of words, described by The Times as ‘a lexicographical genius’.