Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons

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: consultancy, training, naming, and writing.’

To add to what you've just said

‘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, e.g. ‘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’.


  • Punctuation

Share this guide on


Grammar doesn’t have to be gruelling

Check out our training

Related Guides

Enough about us

Let's talk about you

We use cookies to make our site better.

Find out more about how we use them (and why they’re called ‘cookies’) here.