Everyone has something to say about semicolons. We ourselves wrote an article about it on Medium.
But what about its less “popular” sibling, the colon?
Its claim to fame is that it is commonly mistaken for cologne, often to comical effect:
In fact, the easier-to-spell colon is used so often in place of cologne, we were compelled to tweet about the difference (with an assist from our friends at Grammarly):
Furthermore, people mistakenly think that the colon is only good for making lists. (And even then, they misuse it.)
This raises the obvious question: How exactly does one go about using a colon? (We’re not oncologists, so we’re obviously referring to the punctuation mark, not the organ that is the main part of the large intestine.)
The most important thing to know about colons is that the statement before the colon has to be a complete sentence, i.e., an independent clause.
In that regard, they are very much like semicolons.
However, unlike semicolons, colons do not have to be followed by complete sentences. In that sense, they are “superior” to semicolons. Perhaps that’s why semicolons have the “inferior” prefix “semi-” (half; partly).
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that one of the most important standardized exams for prospective college students, the ACT, constantly misuses the colon.
Here is a typical question from the English (i.e., grammar) section of the ACT:
Now that we know how colons work, there should NOT be a colon after “that” in the question stem above.
Contrast this with its rival exam, the SAT. For all of its shortcomings, it does not make a similar mistake in its question stems:
Since many high school students take both exams, it is not surprising that they find this inconsistency confusing.
We won’t be holding our breath for the ACT to get its act together and remedy this situation. Instead, we’ll continue to showcase the usefulness of the versatile colon. Right, Marceline?