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This handout explains the most common uses of three kinds of punctuation: semi-colons (;), colons (:), and dashes (—). After reading the handout, you will be better able to decide when to use these forms of punctuation in your own writing.
The semi-colon looks like a comma with a period above it, and this can be a good way to remember what it does. A semi-colon creates more separation between thoughts than a comma does but less than a period does. Here are the two most common uses of the semi-colon:
1. To help separate items in a list, when some of those items already contain commas.
Let’s look at an example, as that is the easiest way to understand this use of the semi-colon. Suppose I want to list three items that I bought at the grocery store:
In a sentence, I would separate these items with commas:
Now suppose that the three items I want to list are described in phrases that already contain some commas:
If I use commas to separate these items, my sentence looks like this:
That middle part is a bit confusing—it doesn’t give the reader many visual cues about how many items are in the list, or about which words should be grouped together. Here is where the semi-colon can help. The commas between items can be “bumped up” a notch and turned into semi-colons, so that readers can easily tell how many items are in the list and which words go together:
2. To join two sentences.
An independent clause is a group of words that can stand on its own (independently)—it is a complete sentence. Semi-colons can be used between two independent clauses. The semi-colon keeps the clauses somewhat separate, like a period would do, so we can easily tell which ideas belong to which clause. But it also suggests that there may be a close relationship between the two clauses—closer than you would expect if there were a period between them. Let’s look at a few examples. Here are a few fine independent clauses, standing on their own as complete sentences:
Now—where could semi-colons fit in here? They could be used to join two (but not all three) of the independent clauses together. So either of these pairs of sentences would be okay:
I could NOT do this:
But why I would want to use a semi-colon here, anyway? One reason might have to do with style: the three short sentences sound kind of choppy or abrupt. A stronger reason might be if I wanted to emphasize a relationship between two of the sentences. If I connect “I bought a ton of fruit” and “Apples, grapes, and pears were all on sale” more closely, readers may realize that the reason why I bought so much fruit is that there was a great sale on it.
Colons follow independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as sentences) and can be used to present an explanation, draw attention to something, or join ideas together.
1. To announce, introduce, or direct attention to a list, a noun or noun phrase, a quotation, or an example/explanation. You can use a colon to draw attention to many things in your writing. The categories listed below often overlap, so don’t worry too much about whether your intended use of the colon fits one category perfectly.
2. To join sentences. You can use a colon to connect two sentences when the second sentence summarizes, sharpens, or explains the first. Both sentences should be complete, and their content should be very closely related. Note that if you use colons this way too often, it can break up the flow of your writing. So don’t get carried away with your colons!
3. To express time, in titles, and as part of other writing conventions. Colons appear in several standard or conventional places in writing. Here are a few examples:
1. Using a colon between a verb and its object or complement
To correct this, simply remove the colon.
2. Using a colon between a preposition and its object
To correct this, simply remove the colon.
3. Using a colon after “such as,” “including,” “especially,” and similar phrases. This violates the rule that the material preceding the colon must be a complete thought. Look, for example, at the following sentence:
You can see that “There are many different types of paper, including” is not a complete sentence. The colon should simply be removed.
Ask yourself a question: does the material preceding the colon stand on its own? One way to tell if the colon has been properly used is to look only at the words that come in front of the colon. Do they make a complete thought? If not, you may be using the colon improperly. Check above to see if you have made one of the most common mistakes.
The first word following the colon should be lower-cased if the words after the colon form a dependent clause (that is, if they could not stand on their own as a complete sentence). If the following phrase is a complete (independent) clause, you may choose to capitalize it or not. Whichever approach you choose, be sure to be consistent throughout your paper.
Example with an independent clause, showing two different approaches to capitalization:
Example with a dependent clause (which is not capitalized)
The first thing to know when talking about dashes is that they are almost never required by the laws of grammar and punctuation. Overusing dashes can break up the flow of your writing, making it choppy or even difficult to follow, so don’t overdo it.
It’s also important to distinguish between dashes and hyphens. Hyphens are shorter lines (-); they are most often used to show connections between words that are working as a unit (for example, you might see adjectives like “well-intentioned”) or to spell certain words (like “e-mail”).
With that background information in mind, let’s take a look at some ways to put dashes to work in your writing.
1. To set off material for emphasis. Think of dashes as the opposite of parentheses. Where parentheses indicate that the reader should put less emphasis on the enclosed material, dashes indicate that the reader should pay more attention to the material between the dashes. Dashes add drama—parentheses whisper. Dashes can be used for emphasis in several ways:
A single dash can emphasize material at the beginning or end of a sentence.
Two dashes can emphasize material in the middle of a sentence. Some style and grammar guides even permit you to write a complete sentence within the dashes.
Two dashes can emphasize a modifier. Words or phrases that describe a noun can be set off with dashes if you wish to emphasize them.
2. To indicate sentence introductions or conclusions. You can sometimes use a dash to help readers see that certain words are meant as an introduction or conclusion to your sentence.
3. To mark “bonus phrases.” Phrases that add information or clarify but are not necessary to the meaning of a sentence are ordinarily set off with commas. But when the phrase itself already contains one or more commas, dashes can help readers understand the sentence.
4. To break up dialogue. In written dialogue, if a speaker suddenly or abruptly stops speaking, hesitates in speech, or is cut off by another speaker, a dash can indicate the pause or interruption.
We hope that this handout has helped you better understand colons, semi-colons, and dashes! For more information about punctuation, be sure to check out our handout on commas.
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