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What to do with colons and semicolons

Nothing will stop the eye of a reader faster than incorrect spelling or punctuation. Not only do the German and English languages conflict in their use of commas, which Germans know very well, but they also conflict in the proper use of colons and semi-colons. Here are the rules.

Colons are used as a way to say “that is to say” or “here is what I mean.”


We have finally reached our target: we have increased sales over 150% in the last five years.

In that sentence, “target” equals “a sales increase of over 150%.” It’s no more complicated than that.

What seems to be complicated is remembering that, in English, we do not capitalize the first letter of the word that immediately follows the colon unless it is a proper name. Some short form marketing copy or PowerPoint™ slides may use a kind of linguistic license to do this, but in long-form copy, white papers, and any type of formal writing you should never capitalize the first letter of the first word after the colon unless the thing being explained after the colon requires more than one sentence. Then, you must capitalize it.


New employees are given several tasks in their first week: Read the employee manual. Read the safety manual. Fill out tax forms.

Colons also are used when giving lists, but only certain forms of lists.


I like certain colors: blue, red, and green.

However, you would not use a colon in this way:

I like certain colors: such as, blue, red, and green.

It would be better to write it like this:

I like certain colors, such as, blue, red, and green.

You can also use them when you are generating bullet points or numbered lists.


The car comes in several colors:

● blue,

● red,

● green.

In the example above, the most formal type of punctuation has been used. The following form is also acceptable:

The car comes in several colors:

● blue

● red

● green

Also, you would not normally prefer to use a colon directly after a verb or preposition.


The car comes in: blue, red, or green.

In this sentence the colon is completely wrong.

Semicolons are slightly easier since they have a very limited usage. Again, we maintain the same rules about capitalization as are applied to colons: in English, we do not capitalize the first letter of the word that immediately follows the semicolon unless it is a proper name.

Always use a semicolon before words and phrases such as namely, however, and therefore. when they precede a complete sentence.


I was going to call you; however, an urgent business matter kept me busy all day.

You can also use the semicolon to separate two sentences that you want your reader to perceive as closely related.


You are a top customer for our company; that is why we are asking you to answer our survey about our performance.

These two sentences would be perfectly normal when written as two sentences; however, when you connect them via the semicolon you communicate to your reader that they are highly related.

The most complicated formulation comes when you want to write a bullet point list of complete sentences.


We have several options for the resolution of this problem:

1. We, as your agent, can develop the questionnaires for you, but let you handle the field phase;

2. You can develop the questionnaire with help from our experts, then have us handle the field phase; or,

3. We can handle the entire survey on your behalf upon your approval of the questionnaire as developed by our experts.

Notice several important items: Every numbered point begins with a capital letter. Every numbered point is a complete sentence. The final item is introduced in the second to last item with a conjunction followed by a comma. This is the proper format for the most complicated of lists and involves using both the colon and the semicolon. Make specific note that the final numbered item also has end punctuation, in this case a period.

Punctuation is the road sign in your writing. It lets your reader know what you think is connected and what you think is separate. It tells your reader to slow down or to pay special attention to this item. If you use too little or too much punctuation, or if you use it incorrectly, your reader will get confused about what you are trying to communicate.

Communication is the only goal of the written or spoken word.

Key takeaways:

Items after a colon are normally not capitalized unless they are a proper name.

Semicolons are mainly used to help the reader know that these two full sentences are tightly linked.

Certain adverbs (e.g., namely, however, and therefore) are almost always preceded by a semicolon.

Lists require special attention to punctuation, particularly when they are complete sentences.

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

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