The GLV Writing Tips is a continuing series of practical information about the art of writing for the internet today. It is not, nor will it ever be, a finished product, and readers are advised to ask questions and offer opinions in the comments section, but continue to be guided by the standards that the GLV Writing Tips are designed to promote.
Colons and semicolons are two types of punctuation that most often lead beginning writers astray. Even the most experienced writers are, however, advised to use both colons and semicolons cautiously, if ever at all. Colons and semicolons are actually fairly new innovations. No one knows when the period was invented, or where, but we do know that the comma dates back to 3rd Century B.C. Greece. The semicolon was invented by an Italian printer, Aldus Manutius, in 1494 AD, and the colon first appeared in English orthography around 1600 AD.
The semicolon, obviously, is a combination of a superior period over an inferior comma, and was once called a “hard comma,” as opposed to a “soft comma.” The colon, equally obviously, is a period over a period, and was sometimes called a “double period.” The rationale for their utilization was basically a matter of giving a reader some additional clues about how to read a piece of writing aloud, which is why you often find these punctuation marks in plays and poems, written works designed to be read to or performed before an audience. In actual practice, however, the reader stops just as long as for a comma as a semicolon, and stops just as hard on a period as on a colon. That may be why the use of colons and semicolons are declining.
The short answer about when you can use colons and semicolons in news writing is, basically, never. With very rare exceptions, a good copy editor will always delete them because there are really very few occasions when they are really necessary and, most of the time, when writers resort to them, they are just being lazy.
Colons are correctly used in the following contexts:
- to begin an enumerated list, which is what I just did. This is an enumerated list. You will note that it is a list of items with a number beginning each item in the list. The problem with this item is that you are not allowed to use bulleted or enumerated lists in a news story. (See below.)
- to separate hours and minutes in a statement of the time, such as 11:54 am. This use is allowed in news writing. Of course.
- in technical writing, colons are used in ratios, such as 3:4 which means three out of four or 75 percent. NEVER use this in news writing. Always express ratios in written form, such as three out of four, or as a percentage.
- to separate the title from the subtitle of a book, which is an allowed use, but only if the original author entitled his or her book in that manner.
So, as you can see, with the exception of time statements and the subtitles of books, there is no allowed use of colons, unless you are given permission to use a bulleted or enumerated list in a news article. The GLV Writing Tips rule for this is that you should get permission from an editor before you submit articles with bulleted or enumerated lists because article with un-approved lists will probably come right back to you unless you have gotten permission in advance.
There is always an exception to every rule. The exception to this rule is that you are allowed to use a either a semicolon or a colon to begin an inline series of comma delimited statements. This is sometimes incorrectly called a flat list. If, however, there are comma delimited subordinated clauses inside your “flat list,” you must use semicolons to separate the items in the list, and that means you have to use a colon at the end of the sentence immediately before the flat list. Note that when using an inline list, you do not use bullets or numbers. The semicolons function as the separators. Technically, a colon is always preceded by a complete sentence and it is used to link that sentence to following series of sentence fragments, which is the technical term for the comma delimited or semicolon delimited list.
Semicolons are more complicated. The general rule, however, is the same: DO NOT USE THEM IN NEWS WRITING. One of the secrets to news writing is to write as though you are speaking to the reader or, in other words, to write conversationally. When you write a news article, you are telling someone a story, which means that you want to establish and maintain a narrative flow, as you would in an ordinary conversation. Semicolons interrupt the flow of the conversation, at least in part because they usually introduce a series of subordinate clauses which is usually right around the point where the reader loses interest.
In general writing, you can use a semicolon to replace a conjunction, such as “and” or “but.” This is not allowed in news writing, however. Unless you are a master of sentence structure, and you know how to write long, readable, complex sentences, such as this one, without getting lost in the subordinate clauses, you should keep your sentences short and to the point, which means that it behooves you never to use words like “and” or “but” to join two sentences that could stand alone as separate sentences. Therefore, substituting semicolons for conjunctions really has no purpose in news writing and is allowed only as a rare exception to the rule.
Here are the exceptions to the rule:
- Semicolons are used interchangeably with colons to end a sentence that is followed by an inline comma delimited list. The refinement of this rule is that you can use either a colon or a semi colon to begin a comma limited list, but you must use a colon to begin a semicolon delimited list, which you would only use if you had to insert commas into any of the items in the list.
- Semicolons are obviously then used to separate the items in an inline list if any of those items includes a subordinate clause within a subordinate clause, which requires the use of commas.
WHY YOU CANNOT USE BULLETED OR ENUMERATED LISTS
Originally, the reason that bulleted or enumerated lists were not allowed in a newspaper article was that newspaper columns are very narrow. The New York Times and most other newspapers have 35 to 40 character column widths for their news articles. When you put a bulleted or enumerated lists into that format, they take up inches of extra space, which the newspaper cannot afford because that reduces the number of articles the paper can publish.
Over time, that practice became traditional, but honesty compels me to admit that there is a growing trend in online publications to allow bulleted lists because the columns of text in online publications are much wider than the columns in a printed newspaper, and because there are no space limitations for online publications. People who want to be taken as serious writers do not use lists because lists are the hallmark of a hack, a writer who can swot up some information and regurgitate it in a list without formulating well structured prose to report the same data.
There is, however, a very real problem that affects articles in which these lists appear. Google does not like bulleted or enumerated lists because their system tends to deduct points for very short paragraphs, which is exactly what lists look like to the search engines. Therefore, if you want your articles to score well, do not use lists. There is a paradox here, because “ten best” articles tend to do very well with Google….but articles with bulleted lists in them do not.
Some people think that good research skills are what make good reporters. Wrong. As writers, the only thing we have to sell is our styles of writing. Anyone can compile data. When you put a list into an article you deprive yourself of an opportunity to develop and promote your personal style. The hallmark of a good writer, the trait that will get your hired over and over again, is the ability to formulate complete English sentences in the American parlance that efficiently and interestingly convey the information that the article was written to impart to the reader. Bulleted and enumerated lists just are not all that interesting. They turn readers off because they interrupt the flow of the narrative and who wants to do that?
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Commentary by Alan M. Milner