Using Colons In An Essay

1.4: Semi-Colons, Colons, and Quotation Marks

This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 29, 2013 .


This resource deals with semi-colons, colons, and quotation marks.

Punctuation, Continued

Semi-Colons and Colons

You can use a semi-colon to join two independent clauses. Joining two independent clauses this way implies that the two clauses are related and/or equal, or perhaps that one restates the other.

  • Seinfeld was definitely my favorite television show during the 1990s; in fact, it is my favorite television show of all time.
  • I am going to visit Anna in St. Louis next weekend; we’ll get to see the Arch, Busch Stadium, and the Landing.

Use semi-colons between items in a list that already involve commas.

  • I have lived in Chicago, Illinois; Kansas City, Missouri; and Omaha, Nebraska.
  • The sweaters I bought today were purple, blue, and green; yellow, white, and red; and pink, black, and grey.

Use a colon after an independent clause when introducing a list.

  • The catering facility offers the following entrees: fried catfish, grilled chicken, pan-seared salmon, and sirloin steak.

Use a colon after an independent clause when introducing a quotation.

  • My teacher’s remark on my final essay was very complimentary: “This essay coherently analyzes musical trends of the late 20th century.”

Use a colon between two independent clauses when you want to emphasize the second clause.

  • I don’t understand why everyone shops at that store: everything there is so expensive.

Quotation Marks

Put quotation marks around direct quotes. Make sure to put punctuation (commas, periods, etc.) before the first quotation mark and inside of the closing quotation mark.

  • My mom asked, “What would you like for dinner?” and I answered, “soup and salad.”
  • Jared said: “My favorite part of Thanksgiving Day is football.”

Use quotation marks around short poems, song titles, short stories, magazine or newspaper articles, essays, speeches, chapter titles, short films, and episodes of television or radio shows.

  • My dad and I danced to “When a Man Loves a Woman” at my wedding.
  • For my literature class, we are reading Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”

Commas versus Semi-Colon Exercise

Each of the following sentences needs either a comma or a semicolon. Put in the necessary punctuation.
1. Many companies make sugar-free soft drinks, which are flavored by synthetic chemicals the drinks usually contain only one or two calories per serving.
2. Mr. Leyland played the viola professionally for many years and he now conducts a community orchestra.
3. The crab grass was flourishing but the rest of the lawn, unfortunately, was dying.
4. The hill was covered with wildflowers it was a beautiful sight.
5. As I turned around, I heard a loud thump for the cat had upset the goldfish bowl.
6. The artist preferred to paint in oils he did not like watercolors.
7. The house was clean, the table set, and the porch light on everything was ready for the guests' arrival.
8. He looked carefully in the underbrush but he failed to notice the pair of green eyes staring at him.
9. The foundations of the house had been poured but, to his disappointment, nothing else had been done because of the carpenters' strike.
10. The computer could perform millions of operations in a split second however, it could not think spontaneously.
11. I thought registration day would be tiring but I didn't know I'd have to stand in so many lines.
12. The dog, growling and snarling, snapped at me I was so frightened that I ran.
13. The snowstorm dumped twelve inches of snow on the interstate subsequently, the state police closed the road.
14. Professors are supposed to be absent-minded and I've seen plenty of evidence to support that claim since I've been in college.
15. The suspect said that he had never met the victim however, the detective knew that he was lying.
16. In the first place, it was snowing too hard to see the road in the second place, we had no chains.
17. I have read Soul on Ice but I have not read The Invisible Man.
18. San Francisco is my favorite city in fact, I plan to spend two weeks there this summer.
19. The quarterback made a brilliant pass and the end crossed the goal line for the winning touchdown.
20. Large supermarkets fascinate me I can find everything from frozen chow mein to soybean flour in one place.
21. Ron and Mike were both in English class this morning they gave an interesting presentation on their research.
22. The obstacles are not insurmountable but they are real and formidable.
23. Riding a bicycle is excellent exercise I ride mine every day.
24. I am not interested in a trip to Asia this year however, I would like to go to Europe.
25. Not all highly educated people enjoy traveling, but many world travelers are particularly well educated.
26. Jack worked overtime to pay off his education debts at least, that was his explanation for his long hours.
27. Katherine has given up smoking about five times but she cannot seem to break the habit.
28. His work may be almost totally forgotten but he would certainly be surprised to see how much current scholarship simply echoes his ideas.
29. Our dog seems to have a built-in alarm clock he wakes us up at exactly the same time every morning.
30. The passengers on the plane were initially alarmed by the loss of altitude but the pilot and the crew kept them calm.
31. I realized at once that something was wrong I was not, however, the only person who was concerned.
32. I had to complete the assignment by Friday otherwise, I would have failed the course.
33. Ralph decided to be a chemist but he changed his mind after taking Chem. 121.
34. I finished reading The Nation and then I went to bed.
35. We always go to the mountains in the fall they are at their prettiest at that time of year.
36. Tim went to the candy store quite often the clerk even knew his name.
37. Criticism of capitalist expansionism does not surface in most discussions of the worldwide ecological crisis indeed, proposed solutions rarely deviate from a basic message of further technological "progress."
38. The president has pledged to cut taxes repeatedly and the public has responded enthusiastically.
39. The office was closed consequently, I could not pay my bill.
40. The air was beautifully clear it was a lovely day.

Click here for exercise answers.

Punctuation marks: terribly powerful in the right hands. Punctuation marks are silent allies, and you can train yourself to exploit them as such. Punctuation marks do not just indicate sound patterns—they are symbols that clarify grammatical structure and sentence meaning. And, as I demonstrate in the writing of this paragraph, punctuation marks showcase your facility with the language. What follows are some basics about three of the most powerful and most commonly misused punctuation marks.

The Semicolon

The semicolon is often misused in technical writing; in fact, it is often confused with the colon. Grammatically, the semicolon almost always functions as an equal sign; it says that the two parts being joined are relatively equal in their length and have the same grammatical structure. Also, the semicolon helps you to link two things whose interdependancy you wish to establish. The sentence parts on either side of the semicolon tend to "depend on each other" for complete meaning. Use the semicolon when you wish to create or emphasize a generally equal or even interdependent relationship between two things. Note the interdependent relationship of the two sentence parts linked by the semicolon in this example:

The sonde presently used is located in the center of the borehole; this location enables the engineer to reduce microphonics and standoff sensitivity.

Here, we see how the second half of the sentence helps to explain a key detail (the sonde location) of the first half. The semicolon, along with the repetition of the word "location," helps to draw our attention to the explanation.

The semicolon is also handy for linking a series of parallel items that could otherwise be confused with each other. One savvy student used the semicolon in a job description on her resume as follows:

As an engineering assistant, I had a variety of duties: participating in pressure ventilation surveys; drafting, surveying, and data compilation; acting as a company representative during a roof-bolt pull test.

The Colon

The colon: well-loved but, oh, so misunderstood. The colon is not just used to introduce a list; it is far more flexible. The colon can be used after the first word of a sentence or just before the final word of a sentence. The colon can also be used to introduce a grammatically independent sentence. Thus, I call it the most powerful of punctuation marks.

The colon is like a sign on the highway, announcing that something important is coming. It acts as an arrow pointing forward, telling you to read on for important information. A common analogy used to explain the colon is that it acts like a flare in the road, signaling that something meaningful lies ahead.

Use the colon when you wish to provide pithy emphasis.

To address this problem, we must turn to one of the biologist’s most fundamental tools: the Petri dish.

Use the colon to introduce material that explains, amplifies, or summaries what has preceded it.

The Petri dish: one of the biologist’s most fundamental tools.
In low carbon steels, banding tends to affect two properties in particular: tensile ductility and yield strength.

The colon is also commonly used to present a list or series, which comes in handy when there is a lot of similar material to join:

A compost facility may not be located as follows: within 300 feet of an exceptional-value wetland; within 100 feet of a perennial stream; within 50 feet of a property line.

The Dash

The dash—which is typically typed as two hyphens or as one long bar (available on your word processor’s "symbol" map)—functions almost as a colon does in that it adds to the preceding material, but with extra emphasis. Like a caesura (a timely pause) in music, a dash indicates a strong pause, then gives emphasis to material following the pause. In effect, a dash allows you to redefine what was just written, making it more explicit. You can also use a dash as it is used in the first sentence of this paragraph: to frame an interruptive or parenthetical-type comment that you do not want to de-emphasize.

Jill Emery confirms that Muslim populations have typically been ruled by non-Muslims—specifically Americans, Russians, Israelis, and the French.
The dissolution took 20 minutes—much longer than anticipated—but measurements were begun as soon as the process was completed.

Finally, the dash we typically use is technically called the "em dash," and it is significantly longer than the hyphen. There is also an "en dash"—whose length is between that of the hyphen and the em dash, and its best usage is to indicate inclusive dates and numbers:

July 6–September 17           pp. 48–56.

Like the em dash, the en dash is typically available on your word processor’s symbol map, or it may even be inserted automatically by your word processor when you type inclusive numbers or dates with a hyphen between them. When you type the hyphen, en dash, and em dash, no spaces should appear on either side of the punctuation mark.


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