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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reader Question: Colon-oscopies (or How to Use the Colon and Its Cousin)

Tsuki over at Young Writers Online asked:
How the hell do you use a colon or semi-colon correctly?
This should be fairly easy to answer. Here goes:

The colon is primarily used to attach lists or related statements to an already completed sentence. Here's an example:
Billy wanted to buy three things while he was at the store: bubble gum, bananas, and a new wheel for his hamster.
Obviously that is a very simplistic sentence, but it should give you a good idea of how the colon functions. The thing to realize with a colon is that the sentence that precedes it must necessarily be complete. You can't have a colon preceded by a sentence that cannot stand on its own. What follows the colon must always be an extension of the preceding clause.

These little buggers can be a bit tricky. A semicolon is used to connect two related independent clauses. What that means is that each part of the sentence that houses a semicolon must be complete in and of themselves. Example:
Jill cheered for her husband as he marched to the front lines for war; however, the thought of losing him cut close.
Each part of the sentence must be independent (i.e. can stand by itself as its own sentence) and there has to be a relationship between them. You wouldn't talked about Jill's cheering and then how beer is a wonderful drink, unless somehow you're connecting the two.

As for when to use either of these, that's more a personal choice than anything else. I use semicolons quite a lot in my fiction primarily because I like it, but it is completely unnecessary. It does add a certain flare to your prose--although, to be fair, I think that's more based on my personal preferences than anything else.

The colon is one that you'll be hard-pressed to find an adequate use for in fiction. The reason is that the colon doesn't have much use in fiction is because it isn't exactly designed for the styles of fiction written today. You see it primarily within the more academic realms (essays, journalism, and other non-fiction venues). You can certainly find uses for it in fiction, but it still needs to follow the rules, otherwise you'll look like an amateur.

Hopefully that was useful. If you have more questions on this particular topic, feel free to let me know in the comments.


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