Semicolons & colons with other graphics

In recent blog posts, we touched on to marks of punctuation – the semicolon and the colon – that have limited uses, but still cause confusion with writers.

As a review, the semicolon separates equal and balanced sentence elements, while the colon chiefly separates unequal sentence elements. This post looks at how other graphics, specifically capitalization and quotation marks, are used with these punctuation marks.

Capitalization with semicolons and colons

Conventions and style books do not always agree on capitalization format with semicolons and colons, though most state that the first word after a semicolon is never capitalized unless it would be capitalized under any circumstances, such as with a proper noun.

Capital after semicolon: My heart sank; Anna still hadn’t come into view.

No capital after semicolon: The race would be postponed; the winds were already dangerously gusty.

Usage guidelines disagree on whether to capitalize the first word after a colon, but again use capitalization if the first word after the colon is a proper noun, such as the name Anna above, and consider using it if the colon introduces an independent clause:

The journal team was excited: Never before had such an important story appeared, and it was published by Cell Press! (examples adapted from Evans, “Colons vs Semicolons”)

Depending on professional requirements or personal preferences, a complete sentence after a colon can begin with a capital letter or a small one. Experts do agree that you should be consistent in your use in one writing.

Semicolons and colons used with quotation marks

We touched on the use of semicolons and colons in an earlier post mechanical error with quotation. There we discussed the rule that semicolons and colons come after, or outside, the quotation marks and looked at two examples adapted from the APA Style Blog:

At the beginning of the study, participants described their dream recall rate as “low to moderate”; at the end, they described it as “moderate to high.”

Participants stated that they were “excited to begin”: We controlled for participants’ expectations in our study.

Writers, whatever their level or experience, should not be afraid of using semicolons and colons. As discussed, the semicolon separates equal and balanced sentence elements, while the colon chiefly separates unequal sentence elements. Though their uses are specific, these punctuation marks give writers lots of options for shaping their prose and their meaning.

(Evans, “Colons vs Semicolons”; the APA Style Blog)

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