“You love your semicolons, don’t you?”
This comment by Paul, who I had asked to check a sentence that looked wrong to me, led to a discussion on the use of this useful punctuation mark. I was absolutely unable to explain how it is different from a colon or a full stop, as I use them all instinctively, like most people, I suppose. It just “looks right” in some sentences, but not in others. I looked for a definition of colon and semi-colon, and this is what the Penguin Guide to Punctuation tells us:

The colon is used to indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration or what precedes it. That is, having introduced some topic in more general terms, you can use a colon and go on to explain that same topic in more specific terms.

Example:

She wasn’t sure of one thing: the difference between a colon and a semi-colon.


The semicolon has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

1. The two sentences are felt to be too closely related to be separated by a full stop;

2. There is no connecting word which would require a comma, such as and or but;

3. The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

Example:

Her problem was clear; she didn’t know the difference between a colon and a semi-colon.



Now I probably should go through my archives to check that I have properly used all those semicolons…