How to use Colon, Dash, and Semi-colon

We’ve just practiced using semi-colon, dash, and colon in the class. However, some of you are still confused about the usage of these punctuation. Thus, I’ll present some examples for you to distinguish the difference between these three and use them correctly.

1. Semi-colon

I think it is the easiest punctuation among the three because you had practiced using semi-colon while practicing comma rules before. It’s simple that you just need to put a semi-colon between two INDEPENDENT clauses/COMPLETE sentences which have a connection/relationship with each other. It’ll be better if you can include a conjunctive adverb such as therefore, however, consequently, eventually, in addition, etc. to show the relationship.

For example:

The tire was flat; therefore, we called a service station.


2. Colon

A colon is used to introduce a explanatory statement after a complete sentence, to introduce a series of items, to introduce a quotation, or to emphasize some important details that can get the reader’s attention.

  • Explanatory statements

It may be the hardest one among these functions. The explanatory statement must be a complete sentence, NOT a phrase, and explain something mentioned in the previous sentence.

Notice: both sentences separated by the colon MUST be complete sentences.

For example:

President Donald Trump improves the U.S. – Mexico border with an ugly thing: a huge fence is being built to prevent illegal Mexican immigrants from entering the U.S.

So, the statement “a huge fence is being built to prevent illegal Mexican immigrants from entering the U.S.” is an explanation for the word “ugly thing” mentioned in the first sentence.

  • Series of items

It must be a complete sentence before the colon, after that, you can add a list of things. Remember to list everything in the same pattern (parallel structure).

For example:

There are many kinds of tropical fruit in the U.S.: mangoes, bananas, oranges, durians. (Notice: all of them are nouns)

  • Emphasis

Sometimes we can use colon to emphasize something important or interesting.

I spent all my money buying shoes on Black Friday this year: 500 bucks.

  • Introducing quotations

If you want to introduce a direct quotation with a colon, it must be a complete sentence before the colon. NEVER put a colon after a verb.

For example:

Lady Gaga shares her thoughts in a recent interview: “I’ve always been famous, it’s just no one knew it yet.”


3. Dash

A dash can be used to explain or give more information for something, and also to summary a series of items.

  • To explain

Sometimes, when you use too many commas in your sentence, you can use dashes to replace some commas before and after an appositive.

For example:

Donald Trump, the newest president of the United States, has stated that he was going to build a wall at the U.S. – Mexico border to prevent illegal Mexican immigrants.

Note: the commas are used to separate the appositive (underline) with the main sentence. In this case, you can use dashes to replace commas.

Donald Trump – the newest president of the United States – has stated that he was going to build a wall at the U.S. – Mexico border to prevent illegal Mexican immigrants.

  • To summary

A dash is used after list and before summary words (take a look on your handouts to know about summary words)

For example:

Mangoes, bananas, oranges, durians all of them are tropical fruit.

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