Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes


TEST: Replace the semicolon with a period, and if it works, it’s correct. (You’re testing if the left and right side of the semicolon are both full sentences that can stand on their own).

Use a semicolon to combine two independent clauses in a single sentence. Remember, an independent clause is one that can stand on its own as a complete sentence.

Whooping cranes are endangered; only fifty of them are alive today.

Do not use a semicolon between clauses unless both clauses are independent. (A clause is independent if it could stand on its own as a sentence.)

WRONG: Whooping cranes are endangered; because only fifty of them are alive today.

Do not use a semicolon between clauses that are combined with a FANBOYS conjunction; use a comma instead.

WRONG: Only fifty whooping cranes are alive today; so they are endangered.

Semicolons are also used to separate items in complex lists that also contain commas. This is important because it helps in distinguishing each item clearly. Here is an example sentence that describes various historical figures along with their contributions, with each description containing commas.

“Albert Einstein, a physicist, developed the theory of relativity; Marie Curie, a chemist, discovered radium; and Charles Darwin, a biologist, proposed the theory of evolution.”

The semicolons make each individual’s contributions stand out clearly.


TEST: The left side of the colon must be a sentence. The right side of the colon must be a list, definition, or further explanation.

Use a colon to introduce a list, definition, or explanation.

This is what you’ll find in my refrigerator: carrots, eggs and yogurt.

Your instructions are as follows: Read the passage carefully, answer the questions, and turn over your answer sheet.

My sister is a paralegal: a legal professional who works closely with attorneys.


TEST (single dash): A single dash is used the same as a colon, so substitute it out for a colon and use the colon test.

TEST (double dash): A pair of dashes are the same as parentheses and mean a side note. Try reading the sentence without what’s between the dashes, and if it reads fine, then this is the answer.

Use a single dash the same way you would a colon.

To decrease the annual number of heart attacks, Americans should examine the less healthy parts of their diet—fried foods, desserts, and snacks.

After eighty years of dreaming, the elderly man decided it was time to finally revisit the land of his youth—Ireland.

Use a pair of dashes to set off parenthetical or supplementary information.

A dash can also be used to set off a parenthetical or supplementary expression from the rest of the sentence.

At 32 degrees Fahrenheit—which is zero degrees on the Celsius scale—water will freeze.


 Using linking words with the colon, dash, and semicolon.

            WRONG: I have several favorite activities, such as: reading, cooking, and rock climbing.

            WRONG: The parade was a great success; and the townspeople appreciated the festivities.

            WRONG: Yesterday was an emotional day—because my daughter was married.

The use of such as, and, and because would all be wrong. You don’t use linking words like this when also using a semicolon, dash, or colon.