Colons, Semicolons and Dashes

Colons, semicolons, and dashes are perhaps the three most misunderstood punctuation marks in the English language. Each of these is used to indicate a pause or break in a sentence. In some instances, these punctuation marks are not interchangeable. In other instances, it's up to the discretion of the writer. Let's take a deep dive into each of these pause-makers and see which one will suit your next line of prose.

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How to Use a Colon (:)

We use colons in writing for five things:

  1. 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. The sentence above 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.
  2. 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 gave us this advice: "You never know who's watching you."
  3. 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.
  4. In the salutation of a formal business letter, use a colon rather than a comma.
    Dear Mr. Hudson:
  5. When you write the time, of course, you use a colon.
    It's 4:37 p.m.

How to Properly Use a Semicolon (;)

We use semicolons to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, etc.). 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.
  • Let's go to Magic Park; it's where the leprechauns live.
  • I love listening to her TED Talks; she's full of helpful advice.

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 to avoid any ambiguity.

  • The meeting attendees included Mrs. Perkins, the kindergarten teacher; Mr. Shumate, the sixth grade teacher; Ms. Wallace, the P.E. teacher; and Mrs. Barber, the principal.
  • In the fall, I'm traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico; Sedona, Arizona; Whitefish, Montana; and Seattle, Washington.
  • The fire department ordered pizza with bacon, tomatoes, and olives; meatball subs with lettuce, mushrooms and extra cheese; and a house salad with balsamic vinaigrette and croutons.

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.
  • When I go to Saks Fifth Avenue, I like to purchase makeup from Lancôme, Clinique, and MAC; then, I head upstairs to ponder over handbags from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent.
  • Be sure to pack sunscreen, a new book, and snacks in your beach bag; also, check the weather for the morning, afternoon, and evening.

Using a Dash (—)

Dashes look like hyphens, just longer, right? While the two might look similar, they function in different ways. Hyphens join words together while dashes separate words. There are two types of dashes to choose from: the em dash and the en dash.

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How to Use the Em Dash

Think of an em 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 guy from the gym and the party.
  • There was only one possible word to describe how I felt at that moment — like a pile of mush.

Another way to look at em dashes is an alternative option to both commas and parentheses. They, too, can be used in pairs to insert a clause. Here are examples with em dashes used in this way:

  • The entire area — with the exception of the haunted caves — is exhilarating to visit.
  • The puppy ran — much to my surprise — after the teetering toddler.

So, the primary function of the em dash is to cause a strong break in a sentence. For example:

  • She was stunned by his arrival — stunned enough to drop her glass — and ran for the door.
  • The queen's crown — beautifully bedecked in sapphires — completed the ensemble.

Depending on your settings, if you're writing in Microsoft Word and type a hyphen twice, it will turn it into an em dash. This allows readers to read your bit of text with a more severe pause. Alternatively, you can select an em dash from the "Symbols" drop-down menu.

The em dash is about the length of a lower case "m," hence its name. Guess which letter of the keyboard an en dash spans?

How to Use the En Dash

The lesser-known en dash is about the width of a lowercase letter "n," which is why it's named the way it is. An en dash falls somewhere between a hyphen and the stronger em dash. The en dash literally means "through" and is often used in place of the words "to" and "till." That's why en dashes are frequently used with dates and numbers. It is used as a mark of separation. For example:

  • The concert takes place tonight from 7pm–9pm.
  • For homework, please read pages 48–79.
  • We'll be out of town May 15–25.
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The Hanging Hyphen

Hyphens don't have a space between words, but there's an exception to the rule known as the hanging hyphen. But, even then, a hanging hyphen will only have one space after it (and none before it). This sounds technical, but hanging hyphens are somewhat rare. Here's an example:

  • Her favorite workshop was the study on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century castles.
  • Admission rates are discounted for three- and four-year-old children.
  • We're hiring for both part- and full-time positions.

A Note on Dashes and Spacing

As a general rule, hyphens aren't separated by spaces while dashes are. However, when a section of writing requires a dash, always refer to the style guide you're using.

The AP Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style differ when it comes to dashes. AP likes to place a space before and after the dash (unless it's introducing items in a vertical list). The Chicago Manual of Style, however, doesn't take a space before or after. The MLA Style Guide sides with the Chicago Manual of Style, also requiring no spaces.

So, that's the dash. It's an interrupter, a pause-maker, a separator. Its function is so important, it's worth a quick glance through your style guide.

Colons, Semicolons and Dashes in Real Life

The thing one must be careful about with regard to any punctuation mark is that you should use it sparingly. Writing that is filled with colons tends to look overly formal, and too many semicolons come off as pretentious 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. If you stick to these 6 Basic Punctuation Rules, you'll be on the road to a neat and tidy writing carer!