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When To Use Semicolons, Colons And Dashes

The Correct Use of Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes

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 Deepak   July 19, 2022  Writing Service

When To Use Semicolons, Colons And Dashes

Punctuations are not as easy as they seem; even experts falter while applying punctuations like a colon (:), semicolon (;), or dash (—). If you follow the rules, the process can be straightforward, especially in academic writing. However, if you make mistakes like putting a comma between two distinct clauses, it will confuse and frustrate the reader.

When to Use a Semicolon

Use a semicolon in a sentence when you want to keep two distinct yet closely related ideas in a single sentence. You can also use semicolons for lining up complex ideas or phrases that have commas within them. You may call a semicolon to be a more meaningful comma or a less rigid colon. For example:

  • If you want to use two or more ideas of equal rank in a sentence:

    The universe has pointed out to human beings: there cannot be an added frontier than the universe

  • If you want to join two separate clauses conjoined by adverbs or transitional phrases:

    Sam thought Tom was inviting him to go out for a movie; as it turned out, Tom was taking him to a surprise birthday party

  • If you want to display items in a list or a chain with commas within the articles or if the articles are relatively long:

    Our family members are here all the way from Boston, USA; Shanghai, China; and even Paris, France

  • If you want to join independent clauses that are already connected by coordinating conjunctions

My primary research paper goal is to segregate the causes of the disease and add to my knowledge to the existing literature, as this lessens the starvation across the continent, develop new epidemiology designs, and change the pattern of my research field.

When to Use a Colon

Use a colon in a sentence when you want to inform your readers that “this is what I exactly mean.” It is not appreciated to use a colon often in a text unless you use an extensive list. The rule setters are very strict with the way of using colon, but it is pretty easy to remember:

  • If you want to introduce an article or a series of articles:

    Humans are born with five major senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

  • If you want to isolate independent clauses when the second clause explains the first one:

    Margaret’s worst fear came true: her daughter was being sent to the war

    →Note: the sentence after the colon explains Margaret’s worst fear in the shape of an independent clause.

  • If you want to follow the pattern of salutation in a business letter:

     To the Western Valley Committee Chairman:

Tips for Using a Colon

  • Unless the first word after a colon is a proper noun, a part of a quote, or first in a chain of sentences, avoid capitalizing the first word after a colon. Here is an example of the incorrect and correct format.

Incorrect: I have three desires: To eat, cook and click
Correct: I have three desires: to eat, cook and click

  • When you have multiple sentences in a quotation, introduce each one with a colon instead of a comma:

In Chapter 4, the author clarifies his theory: “Cats have dreams, but their dreams are different from humans. A cat’s dream characterizes a primal desire for pleasure, whereas a human is immersed in ego and self-image. This characteristic is equally true in wakefulness and sleep.

Common Colon Mistakes:

  • Using colon to isolate two clauses that have equal rank or specific information:

Incorrect: Zara and her friends loved spending time in the forests: wildlife held a special meaning to them

Correct: Zara and her friends loved spending time in the forests; wildlife held a special meaning to them
→Note: Try to use a period if the clauses in the sentence are distinct. Use a semicolon when the second clause or sentence is marginally related but illustrates the first clause. Colon vs. Semicolon

Do I use a colon or a semicolon before a list?

Use a colon in lists but not in every list. Put it in a list when the list is a complete independent clause:


I have many types of art supplies stored in my basement: acrylic paints, fabric paints, watercolors, pencil colors, and seven types of paper.

  • You can write the sentence in the form, “I have various kinds of supplies stored in my basement.” However, since it has lists, you can’t write it in that form. The list of supplies, if added to the sentence mentioned above, doesn’t change its meaning. If the list does not tag along behind a complete independent clause, using a colon is incorrect. Colons should not precede the examples of the lists mentioned below.

When Paula went to purchase art supplies, she bought colored pencils, a new sketchpad, and some charcoal.

The university mandates to watch the lectures, pass both quizzes, and write a final essay to complete the course.

  • When a list includes a semicolon, place it at the beginning in between the lists of items. Use a semicolon to distinguish every item, especially those with commas.

For example:

When I traveled through Europe last summer, I stopped at London, UK; Venice, Rome, Normandy, France; and Paris, France.When to Use a Dash (or Dashes)

The dash, or more literarily “em dash,” is the most versatile punctuation mark. However, just like a semicolon, you may underutilize it in most of your writing. You can make a dash function like a comma, parentheses, or colon, but try to be subtle in using them in each separate case.

Use Dashes in Place of a Comma:

  • Use dashes in pairs to substitute commas in place of parentheses or interruptive phrases. Dashes add a slightly more definition to make the reader. It will make your reader focus more on the information kept inside the unique mark. 

  • The parenthetical phrase when used with commas:

    And so, with the birth of the baby in June, nearly two months early from the due date, the parents were delighted though quite nervous, and they still had to purchase supplies for their baby.

  • Parenthetical phrase with dashes:

    And so, with the birth of the baby in June-nearly two months early from the due date-the parents were elated though quite nervous, and they still had to purchase supplies for their baby.

→Note: The dashes shed light on the premature birth of the baby, displaying its importance in the sentence

Thus, the discussion above highlights the correct use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. 

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