Following the article on commas last month here’s a look at a further selection of punctuation marks and the outer reaches of your keyboard.
Semicolons and colons
If you learned your craft in the days of touch typing you’ll think of the semicolon as one of the ‘home keys’. This little finger on my right used to have sole charge of a key that’s become somewhat redundant. Semicolons and colons have been largely overtaken by dashes. Traditionally, when a complex sentence needed a pause before a clause, a semicolon or colon was used.
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Semicolons ; )
The clauses before and after a semicolon usually function as separate sentences, but are so closely related that they don’t deserve the finality of separation with a full stop. A semicolon is never followed by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, nor, or, so, while, yet) as a comma should be used. If you’ve had the audacity to use a semicolon, the grammar police will be looking at it!
Colons : )
Anything following a colon tends to elaborate on anything which precedes it. The first bit usually takes the form of a complete sentence, and the bit after the colon may or may not be a complete sentence, but offers an explanation or balance to the rest.
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The colon does have some useful additional uses – you can use one to set up a list:
- Time – colons can be used in 24-hour style – 21:50. Check the appropriate house style for 9:50pm or 9.50 p.m. or whatever (hours and minutes separated by a colon or a full stop, am and pm with or without full stops)
- Chapters and verses in holy texts – Proverbs 15:1
- Mathematical contexts like ratios – 4:5
In the three examples above there are no spaces either side of the colon.
Colons can be used with a title and a subtitle. Set the subtitle off with a colon, and a space after the colon (not before):
Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler
Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise by Darcy Pattison
Hamlet, Act I, Scene III: A Heath There is no need to follow a colon with a hyphen or a dash (ever).
Brackets, parentheses and bracesContinuing our tour of the keyboard, here’s a wander around the right hand side.
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Curved or round brackets tend to be called brackets in UK English and parentheses in US English. The American use is widely recognised on this side of the pond, but the UK convention used to be that the bit of writing between the brackets was the parenthesis.
Use brackets to ‘de-emphasise’ a bit of a sentence that’s an aside or a detail.
These are always called square brackets in UK English, but sometimes in US English these are ‘brackets’ (no adjective). And, as mentioned above, the UK ‘brackets’ are called parentheses.
These have editorial uses which are unlikely to be needed when writing for children. If a quote needs a modification or clarification it’s put in square brackets to indicate that it’s an addition to the original. “She [the proofreader] checked the brackets.”
You can indicate a quote is being presented with some material deliberately omitted for clarity by substituting an ellipsis in square brackets […] for the omission.
Square brackets are also used to enclose the Latin word ‘sic’ (so thus). This is used to highlight an error in a quote that appears in the source material and has been noticed.
“I’m good at speling[sic].” More Latin here
Again, you may not use these but you might as well add to your collection of random knowledge – they tend to be known as curly brackets in UK English and braces in US English. They have uses in mathematics, mechanics and music.