Colons, semicolons and dashes are perhaps the three most misunderstood punctuation marks in the English language. For starters, it seems no one can keep straight which is the colon and which is the semicolon, so let’s start there. Imagine that the first letter of each word is its head. Now imagine both words doing a head-stand. The Os in the words are the dots. “Colon” just has the two dots with little else (:). The semicolon has the two dots with a bunch of extra letters at the bottom, forming a sort of tail (;). There you go.
Now, here's some info on how to use colons, semicolons and dashes. Check out the YourDictionary Punctuation Jungle infographic for an easy-to-understand visual explanation.
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We use colons for five things:
- At the end of an independent clause (a group of words that could feasibly stand alone as a complete sentence) that is followed by a list. This is the perfect example. “We use colons for five things” would make a perfectly good sentence. It doesn’t need anything more to complete it, but following it is a list of the five times we use colons, so to introduce the list, we used a colon.
- When you are introducing a formal statement or a quotation, you can use a colon in much the same way you would use a comma to do the same job. The only difference is that the colon emphasizes the statement or quotation more strongly. My 9th grade Sunday School teacher always told gave us this advice: “You never know who’s watching you.”
- If you say something, and then you feel like it needs to be restated, explained or clarified in another independent clause, you can put a colon between them. When you do this, you’ll need to capitalize the first letter of each independent clause as though they were separate sentences. The power company turned off your electricity for one simple reason: You haven’t paid your bill in months.
- In the salutation of a formal business letter, use a colon rather than a comma. Dear Mr. Hudson:
- When you write the time, of course, you use a colon. It’s 4:37.
We use semicolons to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). These independent clauses are always closely related, but the second is not usually an explanation or clarification of the first. Often the second independent clause will begin with what is called a conjunctive adverb (however, moreover, additionally, therefore, thus, consequently, otherwise, etc.).
- I’m going out; however, I’ll be home by nine.
If you have a list, and some or all of the items in the list have commas in them, then separating the items with additional commas is just terribly confusing. Separate them with semicolons instead.
- The meeting attendees included Mrs. Perkins, the kindergarten teacher; Mr. Shumate, the sixth grade teacher; Ms. Wallace, the PE teacher; and Mrs. Barber, the principal.
Also, if you have two independent clauses that each include several commas, you can join them with a semicolon and a conjunction.
- When you go to the conference, you will hear presentations on research and development, implementation, and management; and you will meet people from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Think of a dash as the punctuation you need when you interrupt yourself. Use it when you need to interject something, and you want to draw attention to it, or when you need to explain or clarify something, but you don’t want to be so formal as to use a colon.
- I looked up, and there he was–the same hot guy from the gym and the party.
- We made eye contact–the hot guy and I–and he started walking my way.
- There was only one possible word to describe how I felt at that moment–mush.
Colons, Semicolons and Dashes in Real Life
The thing one must be careful about with regard to any one punctuation mark is to use it sparingly. Writing that is filled with colons tends to look overly formal, too many semicolons comes off as pretentious, and an excess of dashes makes a story feel choppy. Try to vary the types of punctuation marks you use; it will make your writing clearer and more lively.
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"Colons, Semicolons and Dashes." YourDictionary, n.d. Web. 21 September 2018. <http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/punctuation/colons-semicolons-and-dashes.html>.
Colons, Semicolons and Dashes. (n.d.). Retrieved September 21st, 2018, from http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/punctuation/colons-semicolons-and-dashes.html