There is one element of punctuation that throws even the most experienced writer into wobbles of indecision: the colon. So much so, in fact, that its usage has declined significantly. It’s place has been taken by ‘the dash’ in writing of all sorts. As for its second cousin the semi-colon, it barely registers other than as a sort of upmarket comma.
Punctuation is the oil that makes the engine of grammar run smoothly. Use the wrong oil – or no oil at all – and your engine grinds to a halt in a spluttering mess of broken parts and misconceptions. In other words, your words may, at worst, appear to be gibberish and, at best, may be misunderstood.
Some punctuation can be left to individual tastes, such as the Oxford comma. (I may discuss this little beauty in another post because it is used less and less often these days and I am a passionate believer that it could quite easily save us from destruction and the onset of a new Dark Age.)
We’re not blessed with a huge range of punctuation marks but each has a specific function and a major part of that function is to enhance the meaning of what we are trying to say. When I abuse or misuse a punctuation mark, I am simply undermining the power of my own words.
So what part does the colon play in supporting the power of words? The strength of the colon is as a signal. When you see a colon, you know that what follows explains or builds on what has just been said. Look at the following sentences.
I’ve never been happier. I love you.
I’ve never been happier: I love you.
In the first example, it is hard to know exactly how the statements are connected. We may guess but can never be sure. Do I love you because I’m happy? Do I love you because you’re sitting beside me and I’ve just watched Scotland finally win an important football match after many years? The second example, however, leaves us in no doubt. I am happy because I love you.
When we reach a colon at the end of a statement, it should come as a relief: it is a promise that the writer will provide us with some information – free of charge – that reinforces what we have just read. This liberates us from the struggle inherent in ambiguity.
The colon can also be used to introduce a list, of course, but that seems to me to be merely an extension of its first and primary use. After all, the components of a list are simply elaborations of the subject of the list.
And what of the semi-colon?
Where the colon acts as a sort of question and answer session all on its own, the semi-colon provides two sides of the same story. The semi-colon gives us a rounded view of a situation or thought. Here is a perfect example from James Joyce in the short story ‘Eveline’ from Dubliners: (see that colon?)
The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.
Yes, the two statements could have been separated by a full stop. But the use of the semi-colon invites us to engage with the image as a single entity. The footsteps and the man passing are inextricably linked in the mind of the woman listening. The semi-colon invites us into the moment.
Like the colon, the semi-colon also plays a role in lists. You can use it to separate items in a long list (especially when some list items already include commas) or where the list is compressed into a single sentence. Here’s an example:
James Joyce is famous for four books: Dubliners, a set of short stories set in late 19th century Dublin; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a novel about the childhood and youth of an Irish writer; Ulysses, a novel about one day in the life of a Dublin man; and Finnegans Wake, a long novel about the history of mankind written in a unique form of English.
There’s another little secret about using colons and semi-colons: they make your writing look smarter. If you stick with commas and full stops, nobody will mind too much. Your prose may feel a little leaden and the rhythm may get a little stodgy but nobody’s going to mock. Slip in a colon or two – judiciously, of course – and an occasional semi-colon and your audience will immediately think of you as someone who knows how to write. And that may be the difference between being taken seriously and being ignored.
To end, here is the wonderful Victor Borge discussing his idea for spoken punctuation. Well, it was Victor Borge discussing phonetic punctuation but something called Questar Entertainment has deemed a video of Victor Borge educating us on phonetic punctuation to infringe copyright. I hope Questar Entertainment get a lot of pleasure out of keeping it to themselves. I have removed the link to the video. Please feel free to search high and low for Victor Borge and uncover many wonderfully funny moments.