Words at work

– 5 min read

How to use colons, semicolons, and dashes

Jessica Malnik

Jessica Malnik

Colons, semicolons, and dashes are three powerful punctuation marks with a lot of misunderstanding behind them. They’re often used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be. 

In this post, we shed light on colons, semicolons, and dashes so you can use them correctly in your writing.

What is a colon?

A colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two dots, one placed above the other. It looks like this :

Colons are often used to introduce a list, but that’s not all they can do! Think of a colon as a flashing sign that points to your text. Colons add emphasis and clarity to your writing.

Colons are used to separate two independent clauses when one explains the other. In addition to lists, they often introduce the start of a quotation, block quotation, or explanation. A colon can also be used to introduce an independent sentence.

Common uses of colons  

Using a colon in a sentence before a list gives the impression that the colon means “thus,” “which is” or “which are.”

Example: Three of my favorite pasta dishes: spaghetti, lasagna, and fettuccine alfredo. Example: There are four types of fabrics available: linen, cotton, velvet, and silk. 

The colon in the next example isn’t used to announce a list, like the one above. This one is added for clarification.

Example: There are two ways to get to her house: go straight through town, or take the country roads.

Colons can also introduce a quotation in your writing. Here’s an example.

Example: I’ll never forget what my grandmother said at my graduation: “You can be anything you want to be.”

Colons don’t have to introduce a list or a quotation. They can also add emphasis to an independent clause. Colons can separate two independent clauses when they are directly related, or the emphasis needs to be placed on the second clause. Here are a couple of examples.

Example: One of the most famous inventions of all time: the lightbulb. Example: Of all of his freshman classes, he seemed to enjoy one course in particular: graphic design.

What is a semicolon?

A semicolon is a punctuation mark that looks similar to a colon, but instead of two even dots, the bottom piece looks like a comma, like this: ;

You may see a semicolon spelled as semi-colon. Either spelling is acceptable, and for this post, we’ll use the semicolon spelling.

A semicolon is mainly used to join two independent clauses together that are related in thought. Essentially, it takes the place of using a conjunction such as “and.” This means that if you want to use a semicolon in a sentence, you’ll have to delete the conjunction.

You can expect to see semicolons separating serial lists and used with conjunctive adverbs. How ever you use semicolons, you need to keep in mind that it is NOT interchangeable with periods or commas. You need to be thoughtful about your semicolon placements.

In the next section, we’ll share examples of semicolons used correctly so you can successfully use them in your writing.

Common uses of semicolons

The most common use of semicolons is to connect related independent clauses. If you were to replace the semicolon with a conjunction (and, for, but, so), then you wouldn’t need a semicolon. Be sure to delete the conjunction if there’s one in your sentence with a semicolon. Here are a few examples that use the semicolon correctly. 

Example: Timothy is at dance class; Tyler is at the grocery store. Example: I take a walk during my lunch hour; Steven studies during his breaks. Example. Shayne ordered tacos for dinner; he says he’ll start his diet tomorrow.

Semicolons can also be used to break up a serial list. When a list of items is particularly long or includes internal punctuation, a semicolon helps the reader keep track of what’s happening.

Example: The following cities are on my travel bucket list: Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Miami, Florida; Denver, Colorado; New Orleans, Louisiana; Boston, Massachusetts.

Another common use for a semicolon is using it with a conjunctive adverb to link two independent clauses. Here’s an example of this.

Example: I had to walk to class this morning; also, I needed to stop at the library.

What is a dash?

A dash is a straight, horizontal line that goes in between text. It shouldn’t be mistaken for an underscore, which sits lower, or a hyphen, which is a shorter horizontal line. Dashes help separate groups of works. They indicate a pause or range.

There are two common types of dashes. These are the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). Here’s a trick to help you remember which is which. Picture the em dash the same width as the letter “M” and the en dash the same width as the letter “N.”

But the width of the two dashes isn’t the only thing that separates the two. We’ll cover the differences in the two dashes with examples of each in the next section.

Common uses of dashes

Note: Adding spaces before and after an em dash is a matter of personal preference. However, if you are following AP Style or want to highlight all of the information after an em dash, you should add a space before and after. 

Em dash (—)

Let’s start with the em dash. This little mark can rescue a clunky sentence by replacing parentheses at the end. Here’s an example.

Example with parentheses The exam was brutal, and Madison tried her best (or, rather, guessed the answers). Same example with an em dash instead of parentheses The exam was brutal, and Madison tried her best—or, rather, guessed the answers.

An em dash can also add a bit more flair and emphasis than a colon would in the same sentence.

Example with a colon Jalen watches two types of shows: documentaries and sitcoms. Same example with an em dash instead of a colon Jalen watches two types of shows—documentaries and sitcoms.

Another case you’ll run into with the em dash is when it’s used to replace censored, omitted, or unknown characters. For instance, say that your interview source needed to be kept confidential or the source material was illegible.

 Example: The locket had a faded inscription, “Lov—, El— — —.” Example: An employee of ABC Sample Company, — — —, confirmed the allegations against their coworker.

En dash (–)

Now that we’ve covered the em dash, here are the common uses of the shorter en dash.

En dashes are typically used to show ranges of numbers or time.

Example: Andrew studied abroad for the 2018–2019 semester. Example: You’ll need to read pages 78–102 in Chapter 6.

En dashes can also indicate a connection between words that already have a hyphen or use a two-word phrase as a modifier.

 Example: The Example Award–winning researcher was thrilled to accept the grant.

In sum, it can be a challenge to remember which punctuation mark you should use in your writing. If you want to avoid any embarrassing punctuation mistakes, then try Writer! Start a free trial and customize colon, semicolon, and dash options in the style guide.