English Corner – Colons

The colon is very useful in the English language, but it is also considered to be a bit underused as a means of punctuation within the world of grammar. You have to understand the circumstances for which a ‘colon’ can be used as well as a few examples of when it can show up in a regular sentence. If you can master colons, you can definitely count yourself as being advanced as an English learner. It will take time, but I hope that this tip will help you get a little bit better in making the colon work to your advantage as a writer.

What is a colon? Well, a colon indicates the meaning of what you want to say as well as to list what is necessary for the reader or the listener to understand. Colons and semicolons are very different in terms of meaning and use. They should never be used in the same sentence and are very rarely used together.

There are a number of uses for colons, but the three top ones would be the following:

Use #1: To introduce two or more items and to list them together separated by a comma(s).

Examples:

  1. You should do the following tonight: Practice your instrument, study for the test, and help clean the dishes.
  2. He got what he wanted today: A big promotion and an increase in his salary.
  3. Remember what we talked about: work hard, tell the truth, and always give it your best effort.

Use #2: To start a letter or an e-mail to somebody.

  1. Dear Mrs. Jones:
  2. To Whom It May Concern:
  3. To My Beloved ________:

Use #3: To introduce a quote or a short summary of a few sentences:

  1. John F. Kennedy once spoke: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  2. The author of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, wrote in the second chapter:

“Tom Sawyer went back to his bed and stared at the fence where Jim was painting for Tom’s father. Tom wondered whether his father and Jim were friends or even if they spoke to each other.” (Not a real quote from the book, just an example)

  1. The Presidential candidate was quoted as saying: “I agree that we must move forward on fighting climate change in order to create a better future for our people.”

As you can see now, there are three main uses for colons as well as some rules that have to be observed. Let us now look at some of the important rules for using colons and how to make sure that we abide by them.

Rules of Colon Usage

  1. Colons are used in the middle of most sentences and are usually followed by a list of items or words belonging to the same or similar categories.
  2. Colons can also be used between two sentences especially if the second sentence relates to the meaning of the first sentence.
  3. A colon should always be used to introduce a numbered or a bulleted list, such as for grocery items or different types of grammar concepts.
  4. As mentioned earlier, colons can be used to introduce a quote from a speaker who was reported to have said the following words and sentences. This kind of long quotation does not need quotation marks if you have already introduced who the speaker is and what they are talking about followed by the comma (:).
  5. Colons can also be used at the beginning of a letter or an e-mail in both formal and informal settings for co-workers, bosses, friends, and family members. From seeing the examples above, you can note that instead of a comma (,), a colon (:) is being used instead to introduce the salutation or the greeting for the reader of the letter or e-mail.

These are the main rules for how to use colons and it’s important to keep in mind that a colon can:

  1. Never start a formal sentence.
  2. Never end a formal sentence.
  3. It is rare to have more than one colon used in a single sentence.
  4. Colons can be used between two sentences provided there is no period (.) separating them.
  5. While not very prominently used like a comma or a period, this form of punctuation has its uses which you should know how to utilize.

Colons are a tricky subject but once you understand both the main uses and the main rules, you will be well on your way to creating better sentences and more detailed quotes from the use of this punctuation. Similar to semicolons, colons are an advanced topic that separate an advanced English grammar learner from an intermediate learner. Once you can list items, introduce quotes, and start an e-mail off right, you will know that you are using colons correctly and for the right reasons.

English Corner – Semicolons

Similar to commas, Semicolons are an important punctuation mark that plays a key role in many English sentences. When you think of a semicolon, think of it being a slight pause in a sentence between the two main clauses or parts that should be separated as you would do with a comma. You will want to use the semicolon in between two independent clauses within a basic sentence and this is especially true if there is no coordinating conjunction being used such as and, or, but, etc. A good example of when semicolons can be used is when you are writing a list of items or things that need to be separated from one another. This is probably the most important use of a semicolon, but it is far from being the only usage.

Semicolons are often used in the middle or towards the end of a sentence if apart of a multi-item list. You won’t see a semicolon being used at the beginning or the end of a sentence as you would with a period or a question mark. Semicolons, colons, and commas are all part of what is known as ‘internal punctuation’, which forms the backbone of a complete sentence. Semicolons can be used with other semicolons within the same sentence as it would be the case when commas are used with commas in a similar sentence.

Semicolons can be used interchangeably with commas as well within the same sentence depending on whether two different people, places, or things are being referenced separately. It is perhaps most common that the semicolon is used with another semicolon or more, but it can be used with other forms of internal punctuation. In addition, semicolons can be used with a colon (:) because the colon often precedes the semicolon(s) in a complete sentence in terms of usage.

Let us look at a few examples where semicolons are being used with a colon preceding it:

1.)   Jackie bought the following items from the supermarket today: Corn; String beans; Tomatoes; Bread.

2.)   James listed his worst fears for his teacher in the following order: Flying; Being in front of an audience; Heights; Spiders.

Let us look at how semicolons (;) can be used with commas (,) correctly within the same sentence:

1.)   George’s family included John, his older brother; Jenny, his younger sister; and Jerry, his younger brother.

2.)   There are McDonald’s restaurants all over the world including Istanbul, Turkey; Mexico City, Mexico; and Bogota, Colombia.

3.)   The astronauts had to decide about the countdown: Would they count from three, two, one; or one, two, three?

All these examples show how interchangeable punctuation marks are within a complete sentence especially when you are listing family members or restaurant chains in different cities. You can see how commas and semicolons can be used together, especially to highlight pauses within a sentence to show differences between places and/or people. Semicolons are not used as often as commas but they play an important role.

Let’s look at how semicolons are used to separate independent clauses especially when a coordinating conjunction is not being used in its place:

1.)   Tim goes to France; I go to Spain.

2.)   Jenny wanted to play tennis; I told her the courts were closed due to rain.

3.)   Jack has three dogs; Tommy has one.

4.)   I believe in UFOs; Jordan thinks I have gone crazy.

In these sentences, you are particularly going to use semicolons when the thoughts in each independent clause are opposed to each other or neutral to the other. When you want to contradict the previous clause, you can use a semicolon to highlight the difference between the two points of views instead of using a coordinating conjunction. To put it another way, coordinating conjunctions are used with independent clauses that are similar to each other whereas you use semicolons with independent clauses that are opposed or contradictory of one another. Sentences with semicolons tend to be shorter than those sentences that use commas or coordinating conjunctions, which do a better job of lengthening the sentence without making it a run-on sentence.

Lastly, a semicolon has an important usage in between sentences or within sentences when it comes to quotations. A comma can replace a period after a quotation and then is followed by a semicolon to link the two sentences together especially when the two people are in a conversation.

Let’s look at a few examples of how semicolons are used within a sentence where there are quotations cited as part of a larger story or narrative:

1.)   “I don’t want to do this,” he stated; “You have no choice in the matter.”

2.)   “Is this your home?” she asked; “Why don’t you go inside to your family?”

3.)   “Why do you look so upset?” he inquired; “What do you have to worry about these days?”

Unless followed by the beginning of a quotation or a proper noun or subject, semicolons are followed by a lower-case letter. You can see from these examples and the explanations given that semicolons are a key part of English grammar and punctuation. Whether its with connecting short independent clauses or bringing together a series of quotations, semicolons can be very useful in English writing. The most important use of semicolons remains making lists especially of different people and places along with their descriptive qualities. Please be sure to follow the example sentences I have given to form your own semicolon sentences. Keep practicing, do your best, and be sure to read this blog post again in the future to better understand this important punctuation mark.

English Corner – The Oxford Comma

One of the key debates in English grammar is the role of the ‘serial’ comma or what’s otherwise popularly known as the ‘oxford’ comma. Depending on whom you might ask, there are constructive arguments to be made as to why the Oxford comma is useful or why it may not be necessary at all. It all depends upon your personal preference in using or not using this kind of comma but it is important to be aware of how it is used and why it is used. Having proper grammar is a key part into developing one’s fluency in English and the Oxford comma is often considered to be necessary to developing that skillset.

The Oxford or serial comma is the last comma for a list of things, people, or places. I’ve listed some examples as to make it clear what this kind of comma is. The Oxford comma is always the last comma and cannot be classified as a serial comma if there is only one comma in the sentence. There has to be at least two or more commas in the sentence to have an Oxford comma take its’ place as the serial comma.

Examples

  1. Please bring your books, pencils, and some paper to class tomorrow.
  2. Remind Jimmy, Patrick, and Tina that they have a Math test today.
  3. I had a salad, an appetizer, steak, and dessert at the restaurant tonight.

As you can see from the examples, the Oxford comma is highlighted and bolded as the last of the commas in the sentence whether the subject(s) are people, things, or places. The thing with the Oxford comma to understand is that it is not mandatory to use and that there is a lot of debate over whether it should be even used at all. The use of the Oxford comma is stylistic and different style guides differ in terms of their views on the serial comma.

For example, the AP style guide for English grammar does not mandate the use of the Oxford comma. However, this is in contrast to other style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or The Elements of Style, which mandate and support the use of the Oxford comma. Certain professional organizations and agencies such as the United States Government Printing Office and the American Medical Association are supportive of the Oxford comma and encourage its’ use in their employees. Depending upon whom you work for or what line of work you’re in, views on the Oxford comma are likely to differ.

The debate over the Oxford comma extends to across the pond in the United Kingdom where there is also a divide over if it should be used at all. The Oxford Style Manual and the MHRA Style guide support the use of the Oxford comma whereas well-known national publications such as The Times Style Manual and The Economist Style Guide oppose the use of the Oxford comma. When it comes to the serial (Oxford) comma, British and American style guides both fall on opposing sides of this debate.

The main argument in support of using the Oxford comma is based around how it can clear up any ambiguity that comes with using ‘and’ instead of another comma to finish up the sentence. Supporters of the Oxford comma generally wants to make them understood without confusing the audience regardless if they’re writing a newspaper article or a research paper. I’ll give you an example to see how a sentence’s meaning could be ambiguous without the Oxford comma being used.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney and Katy Perry.

Because there’s no Oxford comma here, it’s definitely strange if you read it out loud. Instead of the intended meaning being that you love your siblings separately and then you also love George Clooney and Katy Perry who are known celebrities, it comes off as being that your siblings are George Clooney (brother) and Katy Perry (sister) which is likely not true.

Let’s look at the same example with the Oxford comma implemented into the ending of the sentence.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry.

From this re-written example with the Oxford comma included, it becomes more clearly that the subject known, as ‘I’ loves his or her siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry. It’s clearly distinguished in this case that the siblings are not the famous celebrities and that they are separate people. However, if you are really opposed to the Oxford comma, you can re-structure the sentence so that it can make sense grammatically and you won’t have to insert the serial comma for it to work.

Example

I love George Clooney, Katy Perry and my siblings.

In this re-written example, you don’t need the Oxford comma to clear up the ambiguity.

Unlike other debates, this debate within English grammar about the Oxford comma will never end. There are always going to be supporters and opposition to its usage. However, it’s important that every English learner or teacher be adaptable to its usage or non-usage. If your student wants to use the Oxford comma, they should be able to because it’s apart of how they learned English grammar and they are technically allowed to do so. If the teacher doesn’t want to teach the Oxford comma to their English students, they also should not have to if they don’t believe in it. We can learn and teach English in a world where the Oxford comma can exist and not exist.