When I was visiting at my grandmother Barebo’s house one summer, she demonstrated how to tell a male kitten from a female kitten. Someone had brought a fuzzy little kit and said, “I don’t know if it’s a male or a female.” Mom B. seized the surprised kitten, whipped it upside-down, and peered beneath its tail. “That’s a male,” she declared.
Amazed, I asked, “How do you know?” She replied, “If it’s a male, there’s a colon under its tail. If it’s a female, it’s a semicolon.” Picking up the kitten, I took a look, and sure enough, I saw two black dots punctuating the kitten’s backside.
So now you know how to tell the difference between a boy cat and a girl one by their respective rear-end punctuation marks. But do you know the different uses of those two punctuation marks?It’s not hard to figure out when to use a colon or a semicolon, but many writers give up and use long dashes instead. The long dash, or em-dash, has become the “There I fixed it” punctuation mark, and these days, it and its cousin, the short dash, or en-dash, are seldom used correctly. But dashes were the topic of an earlier post here. So it’s on to semicolons and colons.
A semicolon is used at the end of one independent clause to introduce another, related, independent clause. Example: (Hey, that’s one way to use a colon, by the way.) “We gave up waiting in the rain to get in to see the new Kauffman Performing Arts Center; it just wasn’t worth it.”
The semicolon acts as an “almost-period,” but it’s not as final. It signals the end of one thought and the beginning of a related thought, or a further comment on the first thought. It often appears where an “and” or “but” might also have been used.
The semicolon can also be used to separate items in a list that might be confusing if you used commas instead. For example, you might write, “Sally had a list of things to do that day that included taking the car to be washed; having her hair re-dyed (the color it was supposed to be in the first place); and driving Nellie, the poodle pup, to the vet, Dr. Neiman, to be spayed.”
If you wanted to introduce a colon into the mix, you could write:
“Sally had a list of things to do that day: take the car…” and then proceed with the rest of the sentence as shown above, changing the verbs from gerunds to regular verbs (“take” instead of “taking”). The colon in this case says, “Here’s the list.”
The colon also can be used after “following,” as in “To create a username and PIN, do the following:” Other words or phrases that precede the colon include “as follows,” “to-wit,” and other words introducing a list of steps or items.
The colon can be used instead of a comma in a sentence like, “Washington Irving said: ‘…..” Or likewise, it can be substituted for a comma in a formal letter salutation, as in “Dear sir:”
For more uses of these kitty-sex-detecting clues, here’s a good source.
So now, each time you see a kitten, you’ll think of the proper way to use colons and semicolons. Right?