The Colon, Semicolon, and Em-Dash: How to Use Them in Your Writing

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Punctuation marks are key to writing sensible work. It connects ideas properly, paces one’s thoughts, and adds emphasis to writing. The basic—and most used—punctuation marks are the period (.), comma (,), question mark (?), and exclamation mark (!). It is important to be familiar with these four. But once you have a good grasp on how to use them, you can begin to explore more punctuation marks. Here, we will talk about the colon (:), semicolon (;), and the em-dash (—), and how to use them in your writing.

The Colon

The colon (:) is a familiar punctuation mark since it is used in several non-grammatical ways. We see it in the expression of time and ratios, as well as in business-related e-mails. But in English writing, the colon mainly works as emphasis, introducing a list, presenting a quote, or connecting two closely related independent clauses.

For Emphasis

You can use a colon to emphasize a word or phrase at the end of the sentence.

Examples: 

  • Mark found out that he only needed two things to lose weight: exercise and a good diet.
  • The woman realized that she finally achieved what she had been waiting for all of her life: contentment.

To Introduce a List

The colon is perhaps most used to introduce a list. You can apply it both when the list is directly connected to the sentence or if items are listed individually in bullet points with one line each.

Examples:

  • The applicant specializes in three things: writing, marketing, and public relations.
  • Here are some rules for Airbnb:
    1. Clean as you go.
    2. Take out the trash every morning.
    3. Keep the noise at a minimum after 9:00 PM.

Do not use a colon to start a list that follows a verb; a sentence like this will work without a colon. 

Tip: As a general rule, words that follow a colon should be in sentence caps unless the word is a proper noun that needs to be capitalized. However, as illustrated by example (b), if the colon is followed by full sentences, the first letter of the first word must be capitalized per sentence.

To Present A Quote

Colons are used to present a quotation or a direct speech, especially if they contain two or more sentences.

Examples:

  • The headline read: “Our New President.”
  • My father always told me: “You must always be kind. Kindness always goes a long way.”
  • The host announced to the crowd: “Dinner is served!”

To Connect Two Independent Clauses

Use a colon to connect two independent clauses when the second phrase explains, extends, or re-phrases the first phrase. Independent clauses are phrases that present a complete thought and can stand on their own.

Examples: 

  • Jane knew that there was only one way to turn her life around: she had to give her vices up.
  • It was difficult: for one, I had to start from scratch.

The Semicolon

A semicolon (;) works a little bit like a colon since it connects two independent clauses that are too closely related to each other to separate. A fun way to see a semicolon is just as it is: a period stacked onto a comma. It marks breaks in a sentence as a comma would, but it is not quite a full stop as a period. Semicolons are helpful tools to link sentences, to replace or help conjunctions, and to lists clearer.

To Link Sentences

The independent clauses that semicolons link must be related. By using a semicolon to connect them, they are then given equal rank or position.

Examples:

  • Some people run to exercise; others swim or ride bicycles.
  • I went to the supermarket today; I bought some vegetables.

To Replace or Help Conjunctions

The best way to know if you can use a semicolon or not is to test if two similar independent clauses would work with the conjunction “and.” You can replace “and” with a semicolon, especially if the two sentences being connected are lengthy. You can also use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are connected with a transitional phrase.

Examples:

  • Anna decided to go on the trip; she left without her sister.
  • We can go to the bank on Thursday; it is less crowded then.
  • John arrived late at the office because of traffic; nevertheless, he finished all of his work on time.
  • Mary watched three scary movies last night; as a result, she did not get enough sleep.

To Make Lists Clearer

Use a semicolon if a series or list contains items that contain commas. In this way, a semicolon acts as a mega comma.

Examples:

  • Alice has lived in three different places: Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; and Dallas, Texas.
  • Michael’s study proved that 72% of students slept less than eight hours a day; 60% of students slept after 3:00 AM every day, and 86% of students relied on coffee to wake up in the morning.

The Em-Dash

The em-dash or long dash (—) is a versatile writing tool. It is very different in use and function to other dashes, namely the en-dash (–) and the hyphen (-). The en-dash is commonly used to show range as in dates (e.g., May–December or 1995–2020) or pages (e.g., page 387–459); while the hyphen is used to connect words that function together (e.g., long-term, red-haired). On the other hand, the em-dash works in full sentences and can take the place of commas, colons, and parentheses in some contexts. Em-dashes can be used to highlight thoughts that might otherwise be in parentheses; to mark a break in a sentence, like an interruption or a trailing off; to emphasize a conclusion; to direct focus on a list; to add more information; or to act as a more emphatic comma. 

Tip: There should not be any spaces before or after the em-dash when you use it; it should stick directly to the words around it. Em-dashes should be used sparingly (a maximum of two times in a paragraph) and is often only encouraged in more casual writing.

To Highlight Parenthetical Thoughts

Two em-dashes can replace parentheses, particularly if you would like to emphasize the parenthetical thought. It works the same way as parentheses, in which the parenthetical thought has em-dashes on both ends. But if the parenthetical thought is at the end of the sentence, it only needs one em-dash before it. Punctuation marks surrounding the original parentheses should be taken out after they have been replaced with em-dashes.

Examples:

  • After rescuing the survivors—all 45 of them—the firefighters were given a roaring round of applause by the neighborhood.
  • The two girls in the photograph—Joe’s sisters—looked very happy.
  • It all happened during her birthday—July 23rd.

To Break a Sentence

Em-dashes can signal an interruption, a sudden change in thought, or a trailing off mid-sentence. This case is best used in informal or creative writing and should be avoided in formal work.

Examples:

  • Mom said she will go—hold on, let me put this down—mom said will go to the store tonight.
  • James, can you get the—oh never mind, I will do it.
  • “I do not think she is careless. I think—“ “You think she is just accident-prone?”

To Emphasize a Conclusion

You can use an em-dash in place of a colon to emphasize a thought at the end of a sentence.

Examples:

  • She only wanted one thing—to perform.
  • There was one person that Jen could not live without—Ryan.

It can take the place of commas, colons, and parentheses in some contexts.

To Bring Focus to a List

Colons are typically used when an independent clause ends with a list. But if the list needs to be emphasized, you can switch the position of the list and the clause in the sentence and separate them with an em-dash.

Examples: 

  • The white sand, the crystal waters, the hospitable locals—this is why the island is the best in the world!
  • Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter—I love all types of cookies.

To Add More Information

Sometimes, we need to put small bits of information to make sentences clearer. You can use an em-dash to insert these details into your sentence, especially if they have many commas.

Examples:

  • You need to know the five elements of a story—setting, theme, characters, plot, and conflict—before writing a book.
  • The three of us—Kate, Paul, and I—are going on a trip.
  • My aunt passed down her necklace—a dainty, hand-crafted, gold chain—to my sister.

As an Emphatic Comma

Em-dashes can replace commas in a sentence if you would like to emphasize a specific thought in a sentence.

Examples:

  • Sarah loved him with all her heart—and she always will.
  • It is almost Christmas—time to buy presents!
  • When his name was finally called—four hours later—he had already finished half of the book he brought.

You need great teachers to navigate the ins and outs of the English language. LingualBox has qualified tutors that can help you learn and master the skills you need to read, write, and speak in English. Book a class now!


Author
Jica Simpas is a writer based in Metro Manila, Philippines. She has over two years of writing experience in producing travel and food-related content. She is currently exploring new writing ventures to expand her practice.