Colons and semicolons — they sound similar and look similar, but they each serve a different purpose. People are often confused about the difference between a colon and a semicolon and when each is appropriate.

There are rules as to when colons should be used in a sentence. The most common use for colons is at the end of sentences that introduce a list, such as a list of steps, as shown in the following example:

The following steps describe how to open a new Microsoft Word document:

  1. Click Start.
  2. Point to All Programs.
  3. Point to Microsoft Office.
  4. Click Microsoft Word.

Semicolons are often referred to as “super commas.” Semicolons are used to join together two independent clauses that are not joined together using a coordinating conjunction (such as but or yet). Another situation in which a semicolon should be used is in place of the word and plus a comma. Finally, semicolons are also used between two independent clauses that are joined using a transitional expression.

The following sentences provide examples of how semicolons should be used:

  1. Our dog always gets off her leash; we had to fence the backyard.
  2. The semester was finally finished; we were glad it was spring break.