The Semi-colon and the Colon

Understanding how to use the semi-colon and the colon will help you to improve your TOEFL writing and even your TOEFL reading skills.

The semi-colon and the comma

Use a colon to make a list.

Use a colon to show that a list of items will follow in a sentence.

A. John engages in several hobbies during the summertime: fishing, running, bicycling, and hiking.

B. The United States has several popular professional sports: baseball, football, hockey, and golf.

Each item in the list should be grammatically parallel to the other items. For example, in sentence A, all the items are gerunds.  In addition, all the items in sentence B are nouns.

Use a colon to introduce an example or clarification of the previous sentence.

In rare instances, a colon introduces a new independent clause which adds clarity or explains the previous sentence.

C. Getting a high TOEFL score can be useful: It helps you get admitted into a undergraduate or graduate program of your choice.

D. During the cycle of life, small life forms in nature called larva are born: These are the immature, wingless, and often vermiform feeding forms that hatch from the egg of many insects.

In sentence C, a colon is used to introduce an example of how getting high TOEFL scores are useful. In sentence D, a colon is used to introduce a definition which clarifies what larva are.

Generally speaking, capitalize the first word after a colon if it is part of a complete sentence that can stand alone. This is why the first words after the colon are capitalized in sentences C and D.

Use a colon to introduce a quotation.

In academic writing, use a colon to introduce a quote. The sentence that comes before the quote must be a full sentence.

E. Maria excitedly talked to her friend after she got an email from Educational Testing Service: “My TOEFL score is 117/120!”

F. Maria received an email from Educational Testing Service. Exclaiming to her friend, she said, “My TOEFL score is 117/120!”

Notice how sentence E preceding the quote is a full sentence. However, in sentence F, the words “she said” is NOT a complete sentence. Therefore, a comma, not a colon, is used before the quotation.

Use a semi-colon to separate two closely-related independent clauses.

Semi-colons can be used to join two sentences not joined by one of the FANBOYS.

G. Preparing for the TOEFL can be time-consuming; with the right guidance, most students can achieve their target scores in a relatively short timeframe.

H. Preparing for the TOEFL can be time-consuming, and with the right guidance, most students can achieve their target scores in a relatively short timeframe.

In example G, the semi-colon joins two independent clauses.  Hence, both sentences have equal rank and should be considered main points. In example H, since the coordinating conjunction “and” is used, a comma, not a semi-colon, is used.  Thus, example H represents a compound sentence.

To avoid confusion, in some cases, use a semi-colon to separate items in a series.

In certain cases, as is evident in sentence I, a semi-colon should be used to separate items in a series, especially if one of the items in the sentence has multiple items within it (i.e., “writing paragraphs with clearly marked topic sentences, relevant supporting details, and transition words”).

I. Creating a sharply-focused three-point thesis; writing paragraphs with clearly marked topic sentences, relevant supporting details, and transition words; and ending the essay with a conclusion which restates the key points are skills that all TOEFL writing students should learn.

J. Creating a sharply-focused three-point thesis, writing paragraphs with clearly marked topic sentences, relevant supporting details, and transition words, and ending the essay with a conclusion which restates the key points are skills that all TOEFL writing students should learn.

Sentence J, which does not use any semicolons, is more difficult for readers to understand. Conversely, sentence G uses semicolons, thus making it easier for the reader to identify THREE important writing skills that writers must learn.

Good luck on your upcoming TOEFL exam!

Michael Buckhoff, mbuckhoff@aol.com

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