Bessie and Abbot having retreated, Mrs. Reed, impatient of my now frantic anguish and wild sobs, abruptly thrust me back and locked me in, without farther parley. I heard her sweeping away; and soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene.
(Jane Eyre)

In the example, the semi-colon seems to denote compound sentence, and the colon complex one, for "unconsciousness closed the scene" makes a dependent clause of preceding sentence. Is it right? If yes, can this be generalized?

  • 2
    The last four words are incorrect: they should be "unconsciousness closed the scene". When you quote, copy and paste, don't touch type: it's too easy to make mistakes.
    – user264
    Feb 12, 2013 at 4:22
  • 3
    It seems that the colon and the semicolon both function as conjunctions in this excerpt. I don't think there's any rule that says anything like "use semicolons to conjoin two clauses into a complex sentence and colons to conjoin two clauses into a compound sentence". The only rule I'm aware of is that both the semicolon and the colon can replace a period (full stop). In the excerpt, Bronte chose what she preferred. Periods would have worked just as well grammatically, but good writers prefer their own style. It doesn't change the semantics.
    – user264
    Feb 12, 2013 at 4:27
  • 2
    Check the post Which is right: semi-colon or colon?. It seems to be a similar case. Emphasis seems to be equal on both phrases, so I would use a semi-colon.
    – user485
    Feb 12, 2013 at 4:35
  • 6
    I think it's also worth pointing out that (A) Artists take some artistic licence with their works, (B) Everyone, including native speakers make mistakes - particularly with more complex grammar such as colons and semicolons and (C) texts written more than a hundred years ago are not representative of modern literature or grammatical rules.
    – Matt
    Feb 12, 2013 at 5:39
  • 5
    Two points. 1. ‘Jane Eyre’ was published in the middle of the nineteenth century. Whatever punctuation conventions were current then are not necessarily a guide to current practice. 2. Punctuation is often determined by publishers rather than authors. It may be that Charlotte Brontë punctuated her sentence in this way, but we’d have to examine her manuscript to be sure. Feb 12, 2013 at 7:58

1 Answer 1


A semi-colon always marks a ‘compound’ sentence, for both what precedes and what follows a semi-colon must inclused independent clauses. The semi-colon marks a new idea:

I heard her sweeping away; and soon after she was gone, I suppose I had a species of fit…

Jane hears Mrs. Reed sweeping, and then has a fit. A semi-colon can always be replaced with a period; its use marks the two clauses it separates as a bit more closely related than separate sentences would be.

But a colon does not necessarily, or even usually, mark a ‘complex’ sentence, for what follows the colon may be an independent clause, a dependent clause (rarely), or merely a phrase or word or list. A colon marks what follows it as an enlargement or explanation or more detailed definition of what comes immediately before it:

… I suppose I had a species of fit: unconsciousness closed the scene.

The “unconsciousness” defines the “fit” and provides evidence for Jane’s supposition.

The entire sentence is in fact ‘complex’, but this is because “soon after she was gone” is an adverbial dependent clause. The ‘complexity’ has nothing to do with the colon, which in this case is followed by an independent clause.

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