Teaching the Rules of Punctuation: Commas, Colons, and Semicolons

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Colon Rules

When teaching colons to students, it’s best to provide three important and simple rules of punctuation. In order to avoid confusion for students, simply have them list these three times to you use a colon.

  1. Use a colon before a list of things to highlight the information after the colon.
  2. Use a colon before a statement that explains the meaning of a previous statement.
  3. Use of a colon is required after the greeting of a business letter and between minutes and hours when writing the time.

Semicolon Rules

Semicolons can be terribly confusing for students. Students often use commas incorrectly, instead of semicolons. They may also confuse colons and semicolons. To avoid confusion, explain these simple rules of punctuation when teaching students semicolons:

  1. Use a semicolon when two independent clauses appear in the same sentence and are not joined by a conjunction. Remind students that an independent clause is a clause that can stand by itself (it has a subject, verb and expresses a complete thought).
  2. Use a semicolon between two independent clauses in the same sentence where the second independent clause begins with a transitional word of phrase, such as however or therefore.
  3. Use a semicolon to separate two independent thoughts within the same sentence if too much comma usage makes the entire thought too complex.
  4. Use semicolons to separate items of a list that already contain commas, such as city, state.


One of the most common grammatical errors is incorrect comma usage. Students love to include extra commas, or leave out necessary commas. To ensure commas are used correctly, there are seven simple rules of punctuation to teach your students.

  1. Use commas to separate a series of items.
  2. Use a comma to divide two or more adjectives that precede a noun.
  3. Commas should be used before conjunctions (such as and, or but, and since, for example) when the conjunction is used to join two independent clauses.
  4. Commas should also be used before and after any word/clause that interrupts a sentence (like “however”)
  5. A comma should always be used after any exclamatory words that appear in the beginning of a sentence (such as Oh, or ah)
  6. Commas should be used after a phrase of introduction.
  7. Everyday situations require the use of a comma also, such as writing the date or between elements of a person’s address.

When teaching the rules of punctuation, it is important to remember that practice makes perfect. Give your students the opportunity to not only utilize what they have learned in their own writing, but to recognize correct and incorrect usage in the writing of others.