Colon vs. Semicolon. vs. Dash


Three punctuation marks with similar functions include the colon, semicolon, and em dash. We use these symbols to separate a part of a sentence to communicate a clearer message.

This article shows the difference between a colon vs. semicolon vs. dash in terms of usage. We’ll also study some examples of how to use them in sentences.

Importance of Proper Punctuation

Proper punctuation is essential in the English language to make your message clearer and more understandable. It helps you know when to pause, stop, ask, or combine ideas. Proper punctuation is also vital to avoid mistakes like run-on sentences and comma splices.

When your writing shows proper grammar and punctuation, it will be much easier to persuade your audience. Businesses will attract more customers and sell their products. In the same way, book writers will make their readers hooked to the story.

What is a Colon Used For?

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A colon (:) is a punctuation mark used for an introductory phrase in the English language. Colons introduce information in the original sentence, then provide context.

Learning how to use this symbol is easy. For example, one can say, “There are three states of matter: solid, liquid, and gas.” Solid, liquid, and gas are introduced in the sentence as the three states of matter.

You can also use a colon when dividing complete sentences into an independent clause and another independent clause.

Example:

  • The tides are high: It’s dangerous to ride the boat today.

This usage for a colon is uncommon. You don’t always see writers use this punctuation mark to make a clause independent. However, this rule is essential to avoid a comma splice.

A comma splice is a comma mistake that uses commas to combine main clauses. Later, you’ll learn that the American semicolon usage has a similar purpose.

You can spot a colon in different kinds of writing, such as in a formal business letter, creative writing, and academic writing. You can see the colons in business letters after the introductory statements, such as “To whom it may concern:”

Use a colon to express units of time, titles, bibliography entries for specific citation styles, and ratios. Here are some examples of colons in sentences:

  • I went home at 23:30 last night. (In clock times, colons split hours from minutes).
  • Hardwicke, Catherine. 2008. Twilight. United States: Summit Distribution.
  • The best salt-to-water ratio for this recipe is 1:4.

One common error regarding colon use is adding it after phrases like “including” and “such as” in a sentence. Here’s an example of incorrect use of a colon in action:

  • Incorrect: Leigh has all the skills of an editor, such as: attention to detail, writing ability, and time management.
  • Correct: Leigh has all the skills of an editor, such as attention to detail, writing ability, and time management.

How Do I Capitalize After a Colon?

One of the many colon errors you’ll encounter is the improper capitalization of the word or phrase after. This is not a matter of choice or preference.

Capitalize the first letter of the first word if it begins with a new sentence. You must also use the capital letter for a proper noun or acronym.

However, if you use British English, you should only use a capital letter for acronyms and proper nouns.

What is a Semicolon Used For?

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Semicolons or semi-colons (;) also have confusing punctuation rules because their use has declined over the previous century. Its primary function is to divide clauses within a sentence. Here’s an example of how to use a semicolon in a sentence:

  • My go-to snack is iced white chocolate coffee with 4-cheese flatbread; these foods remind me of my college days.

Do not use semicolons on a dependent clause and sentence fragments. These pieces of punctuation only separate sentences with independent clauses. Instead, use additional commas to separate an independent clause from an explanatory phrase.

Example:

  • Incorrect: She got her facial features from her father; from nose to eyes.
  • Correct: She got her facial features from her father, from nose to eyes

You can also use a comma instead of a semicolon to divide a main clause from a subordinate clause.

Example:

  • Incorrect: If you give me a sign; I will gladly take it.
  • Correct: If you give me a sign, I will gladly take it.

Think of semicolons as alternatives to conjunctions. In the example above, we can replace the semicolon with “because.”

  • My go-to snack is iced white chocolate coffee with 4-cheese flatbread; these foods remind me of my college days.
  • My go-to snack is iced white chocolate coffee with 4-cheese flatbread because these foods remind me of my college days.

Aside from separating clauses in an independent sentence, semicolons have another purpose in writing. You can separate items in a list that already has commas or internal punctuations, also known as complex series.

For example, we can put the following items together in a sentence using semicolons:

  • Big, shiny diamond.
  • Silky, long dress.
  • Red stilettos.

Here’s what the sentence looks like:

  • Evelyn received a big, shiny diamond; a silky, long dress; and red stilettos for her birthday.

Use semicolons instead of commas with compound sentences so you can separate lengthy phrases.

Example:

  • Incorrect: Some things I bought include a diamond, which is big and shiny, a dress, which is made of silk, and red stilettos, which I first saw Emma wearing.
  • Correct: Some things I bought include a diamond, which is big and shiny; a dress, which is made of silk; and red stilettos, which I first saw Emma wearing.

Another purpose of a semicolon is to separate transitional expressions. Here are some transitional phrases and conjunctive adverbs that use a semicolon:

  • Accordingly.
  • Finally.
  • Furthermore.
  • Also.
  • Besides.
  • Incidentally.
  • Nevertheless.
  • Next.
  • Nonetheless.
  • Therefore.
  • Thus.
  • The.
  • Still.
  • Similarly.
  • After all.
  • As a matter of fact.
  • In addition.
  • Even so.
  • For example.
  • In addition.
  • In other words.

The use of semicolons is confusing but meaningful. Take it from Cecilia Watson, who said:

A semicolon is where our anxieties and aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so those big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink in this small mark.

Semicolon vs. Colon

The primary use of a colon is to introduce or emphasize phrases or statements. Meanwhile, semicolons join two independent clauses.

Example:

  • Sources say Harry is in either of the following countries: Spain, Italy, or France.
  • I’m not available tonight; I have a Math examination tomorrow.

Colon or Semicolon Before List?

Colons and semicolons are used in lists in different ways. Put a colon following a complete sentence when showing a list of items. Make sure there are no words like “such as,” “that is,” or “namely” before the colon.

Example:

  • Please bring all the essential camping items: sleeping bags, pillows, toiletries, lanterns, food, and tent.

Do not use a semicolon before introducing a list. Instead, you should use it to separate lengthy items in a list.

Example:

  • Please bring all the essential camping items: medium-sized, lightweight sleeping bags; two pillows; toiletries like soap and toothbrush; and a small, pyramid-shaped tent.

What is a Dash Used For?

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A dash is a horizontal line that represents different things in a sentence. There are two types of dashes you must know: the en dash and the em dash.

En Dash

The en dash (–) is shorter than the em dash but longer than a hyphen (-). Its primary function is to replace the word “to” for scores or ranges.

Example:

  • She works a 9–5 job.
  • The final score was 16–20.
  • The room is 15–30 meters wide.

If the sentence contains words like “from… to…” and “between… and…,” you should not put an en dash.

Example:

  • Incorrect: We traveled from LA–Tokyo.
  • Correct: We traveled from LA to Tokyo.
  • Correct: We traveled LA–Tokyo.

Many people commit the accidental usage of a single hyphen rather than an en dash. Remember that an en dash, which looks like a double hyphen, is for ranges in numbers and dates. A hyphen, which resembles a single dash, is for compound words.

Examples:

  • Aside from International language, math, and economics, I also enjoy learning about African-American studies.
  • Please read pages 25–30 of the book.

Em Dash

The em-dash (—) isn’t new to the world of punctuation. Emily Dickinson, a 19th-century poet, enjoyed using them. However, 20th-century authors rarely used it because of its complexities.

You can use an em-dash to separate a non-restrictive clause or bonus phrases. Non-restrictive or non-essential clauses are not vital to the sentence’s meaning.

Example:

  • Nathaniel—who works as a flight attendant—majored in Tourism.

Here, the sentence structure is similar to using commas, non-restrictive clauses, and a parenthetical phrase. Below is an example of how we can use a comma and parentheses as substitutes:

  • Nathaniel, who works as a flight attendant, majored in Tourism.
  • Nathaniel (who works as a flight attendant) majored in Tourism.

One incorrect usage of the dash is when they are used as hyphens. Do not use an en dash and em dash for compound words and word forms of numbers.

Colon vs. Dash

The dash and colon rules are different from one another. But we use both em dash, colon, and comma for emphasis in a statement or to make a noun, noun phrase, or appositive clearer.

Examples:

  • My new business partner is Arya’s best friend: Jumbo.
  • My new business partner is Arya’s best friend—Jumbo.
  • My new business partner is Arya’s best friend, Jumbo.

Can a Dash be Used as a Colon?

The dash can be used as a colon despite their difference in some functions. When emphasizing a noun or a noun phrase, dash and colon are clear-cut choices depending on the style guidelines.

Examples:

  • Our new coffee shop is located in everyone’s favorite city: New York.
  • Our new coffee shop is located in everyone’s favorite city—New York.

Can a Dash Replace a Semicolon?

An em dash can replace a semicolon when combining two independent clauses.

Example:

  • I cannot afford a vacation; the ticket costs alone are expensive.
  • I cannot afford a vacation—the ticket costs alone are expensive.

Is a Hyphen a Dash?

A hyphen is similar to a dash but has a different function. It joins words to form compound words like “twenty-two” or “party-goer.” Avoid using a hanging hyphen or including a space between hyphens, such as “twenty- two” or “party – goer.”

Examples of a Colon in Sentences

  • This generation has a common insignificant source of grief: not getting enough likes on social media.
  • I only have one goal this month: to finish this puzzle and buy another.
  • And remember this: Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.
  • This is my dream apartment: a walk-in closet, bathtub, and three bedrooms.

Examples of a Semicolon in Sentences

  • Our store is not your regular coffee shop; we sell exotic gourmet coffee.
  • The competition winners are Steve from Las Vegas, Nevada; Madie from Irvine, California; and Alyssa from Nashville, Tennessee.
  • You can bring any costume tomorrow; however, renaissance dresses are in short supply.
  • Once I finish my puzzle, I will help you complete yours; and that is a promise I won’t break.
  • I am in London; you are in Ireland.

Examples of a Dash in Sentences

These examples show the usage of the en dash in sentences.

  • The First World War (1914–1918) ignited in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
  • The Eagles won 6–3 in the tournament.
  • The available slots will be June 10–12 at the Hyatt Hotel.

Here are some examples of the em dash in sentences.

  • The study—which includes bees and butterflies—shows that bees smelled the flowers 9k times more than the butterflies.
  • I will contact my lawyer—Jonah Garcia—tomorrow.
  • Only one solution remains—revenge.

Colon vs. Semicolon vs. Dash in a Nutshell

Now you should understand the difference between a colon, semicolon, and em dash and how to use them. Remember to:

  • Use a colon to emphasize dialogue, show titles and time, or introduce a list.
  • Semicolons separate two independent clauses.
  • Use an en dash for ranges and an em dash to separate non-essential information.

Always follow the punctuation rules in formal writing to make your work clearer and more readable.



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