Writing E-Tips
December 2005   
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"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance,
but to do what lies clearly at hand."

—Thomas Carlyle

The Power of Punctuation, Part IV

Using Semicolons and Colons

     Thinking about writing can sometimes be daunting when the finished piece looms in the distance. Yet good writing, like anything else, is a process done one step at a time. Focus on the business at hand, and you will move steadily forward—and that finished piece won’t seem so far away.


Semicolons should be used sparingly. They are frequently misused, but when used properly, they can help maintain order within your writing. Here are some common uses for semicolons.

To Join Independent Clauses

Independent clauses can stand alone as separate sentences. If the thoughts in two clauses are closely connected, they can be joined by a semicolon to create a compound sentence.

The budget for this fiscal year is falling short; we must be creative about cutting expenses.

You may also use a semicolon to join independent clauses connected with a coordinating conjunction when one or both clauses are very long or contain several commas.

We considered opening a branch office in Tumbleweed, Texas; but after reviewing location, accessibility, and city services, we selected San Antonio instead.

With a Conjunctive Adverb

You may use a semicolon to join two clauses when one begins with a conjunctive adverb such as however, instead, therefore, or besides.

The plans for renovating our executive offices have been scrapped; instead, we will construct an employee parking garage.

To Separate Items in a Series

When you list a series of items that already have commas in them, use semicolons to separate the items to avoid confusion.

The committee that will review the plans includes Bo Harris, the corporate liaison; Maria Sanchez, who will manage the new division; and Charles Dowd, who is in charge of finances.


Colons have diverse yet specific uses.

To Introduce Explanatory Material or Formal Statements

When explanatory material following a colon is a sentence, capitalize the first word; otherwise, capitalization is not necessary.

Our mission is simply this: to establish a clearinghouse for philanthropic organizations in the tri-county area.

John Naisbitt offered this thought: “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.”

To Introduce a List

One common error people make is using an incomplete sentence to introduce a list.

Incorrect: At today's meeting, we will address: Marc’s safety report, Anna’s budget review, and Trina’s project reassignments.

Make sure to use a complete sentence before the colon.

Correct: We will address three items at today’s meeting: Marc’s safety report, Anna’s budget review, and Trina’s project reassignments.

Following a Salutation

Follow a business letter salutation or a memo heading with a colon.

Dear Ms. Bordoni:                    To:  Jean Bordoni

To Indicate Time and Ratios

Colons are used to separate the numbers in an expression of time or in a ratio.

3:15 p.m.               7:30 a.m.

We plan to have a 4:1 ratio of workers to machine.

The preceding tips are from
Write for Business:
A Compact Guide to Writing
and Communicating

Now available for purchase at http://www.upwritepress.com/products/books_cds.php.

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UpWrite Press is proud to produce materials that help improve employee writing skills, encouraging a constant learning environment within businesses. To that end, we encourage you to explore the possibilities during Employee Learning Week, December 5-9.

Employee Learning Week is sponsored by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD). Because a highly skilled workforce is crucial to economic growth and stability,  ASTD encourages all organizations to rededicate themselves to employee learning.  The organization hopes the week will convince employers to promote learning and development through these methods:

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In addition, ASTD will host a special Webcast at 2:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, December 7. For more information, visit www.employeelearningweek.org.

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