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What’s the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

What’s the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

A colon is used:

  • when the second phrase expands on the first. Example: Participants came from five countries: Bhutan, China, Denmark, Indonesia and Japan:
  •  to introduce a list (see above);
  •  for time in US English, where British English usually uses a full stop.

Example: US English:  22:30 vs British English: 22.30
               (vs United Nations preferred style: 10.30 p.m).

A semicolon is used in more formal writing. It’s a pause between a comma and a full stop in length.  

Semicolons are also used to separate two independent clauses that could otherwise be connected by a linking word such as “and” or “because”.
They’re used by journalists too. Look at articles in the Guardian to see examples. A semicolon shows that the two ideas flow on; but it’s a particular style and some journalists avoid using them. You can always use a full stop instead.

In reports, they’re often used in lists to separate items, particularly if the list items are quite long.

Example (formal) from the United Nations Editorial Manual online, with both semicolons and colons:

The actions taken by the General Assembly in connection with the strengthening of safety and security are:

  • To approve the additional posts requested for the biennium 2004–2005;
  • To approve the proposed revised funding arrangements for the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator as follows:
  • The resource requirements already approved for 2004 would continue to be funded under the arrangements established in resolution 56/255;
  • The additional resource requirements for 2004 would be met from the United Nations regular budget appropriation.

Shorter lists with bullets, comprising items or parts of sentences, don’t usually require punctuation.


Carol Waites (PhD)

Presentation/editing by Christina O’Shaughnessy (editor)

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