I understand that colons can join two independent clauses if the second independent clause expands on or explains the first. I understand that semicolons can join two independent clauses if they are closely related in subject matter. What I do not understand is why so many grammar guides online say that the colon and the semicolon are in no way interchangeable.

For example, this following sentence is from the novel God's Demon by Wayne Barlowe:

'Adamantinarx was not dissimilar, in its composition, from many of the cities of Hell; its flagstoned streets ran red with the blood of its souls, its soul-bricks sighed and blinked as one passed them, and its countless low buildings groaned and shuddered like any others in any other infernal city.'

The second independent clause in this quote both expands on the first independent clause AND is closely related to the first independent clause in terms of subject matter; thus, could the semicolon not be replaced with a colon? In this instance, are the colon and the semicolon not interchangeable?

The reason I'm asking is because I'm a writer who consistently has to choose between a colon and a semicolon for the purpose of joining two independent clauses, however, in a lot of cases, they seem interchangeable, such as with the above example.

  • I suppose these grammar guides should have said "usually not interchangeable." Commented May 23, 2017 at 22:19
  • 1
    Fowler's The King's English notes the frequent interchanging of colons and semicolons by writers even back in the 1930s: "Some think [the colon] a prettier or more impressive stop than the semicolon, and use it instead of that; some like variety, and use the two indifferently, or resort to one when they are tired of the other."
    – Myles
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 0:24
  • I wouldn't use a semicolon here; they tend to separate related ideas. Colons on the other hand have been labelled 'introductory': they lead to the development of ideas. That said, they are rather old-fashioned, often better avoided – the dash is often the better choice. Commented May 16, 2022 at 15:30


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