Colons, Semi-Colons and Dashes: When to Use What

Imagine you’re listening to a presentation and the speaker says every sentence in the same way – it might sound a bit boring after a while, right?

Well, just like we need to be aware of how changes in stress, intonation and pausing affect how our speech goes down, we should adopt similar strategies to avoid monotony in our writing.

Apart from decisions about grammatical structures and vocabulary, the choice of punctuation can make a piece of writing sound varied and engaging or not.

Today we’re going to look at 6 fun facts about the oft-confused colon, semi-colon and dash and see how they can be used to enrich your writing.

When To Use Colon Semi Colon And Dash

1. Colons & Semi-Colons Can Introduce Lists

Colons are used to introduce a straightforward list of items but a semi-colon would be used when the list is more complex and involves lots of commas.

Simple list:      We need to revise the following grammar for the test: conditionals, narrative tenses and linking words.

Complex list:   I have been to the following European cities: Paris, France; Milan, Italy; Barcelona, Spain; Helsinki, Finland.

They had so much to do before the flight: tidy up and show the cat-sitter around; change up their money; buy some gifts for John’s family in New York.

2. Colons & Semi-Colons Can Link Two Related Sentences

The colon is used when the second clause explains or gives an example of the first.  Semi-colons also link two closely-related clauses, but the relationship may not appear as strong as it does with a colon.

  • Students should read the set-texts during the summer holidays: they areexpected to be familiar with the subject matter when they start the new term.
  • I’m going to read the set-texts over the summer holidays; I’ll have plenty of free time then.

The use of the colon or semi-colon in these cases helps the reader focus on the relationship between the two clauses: if they were separated by a full stop, it might sound a bit abrupt.

3. Dashes Can Replace Colons

A dash can also connect two sentences when you want to sound less formal:

  • You need to arrive on time: we can’t start until everyone is here.
  • You need to arrive on time – we can’t start until everyone is here.

4. Dashes Can Replace Parentheses

When you want to draw more attention to what is between parentheses, you can use the dash:

  • We counted all the books (45 in total) and gave them out to the visitors.
  • We counted all the books – 45 in total – and gave them out to the visitors.

5. Colons are Used in a Range of Writing Conventions

Here are a few examples of where colons are the punctuation of choice:

Direct speech/quotations:      John shouted across the room: “Watch out!”

Greetings in formal letters:    To whom it may concern: I am writing to…

Subtitles:                                 English Grammar: A Complete Guide

Times:                                     The train leaves at 4:45 on the dot.

6. Semi-Colon Tattoos are Trending

The humble semi-colon has been adopted as a symbol of solidarity with those affected by depression and mental health issues.  See Project Semicolon for more information:

Now you know a bit more about colons, semi-colons and dashes, why not set yourself the challenge of using each one at least once in your next piece of writing?

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