Semi-Colons (;), Colons (:) and Dashes (—)

My favorite bloggers use semi-colons, colons, and dashes to make their writing sound more conversational. Yet I rarely use these punctuation marks in my own writing. 

To learn more, I found a great post on the topic but still found myself referring back to it every time I wanted to use these punctuation marks. It was very impractical. 

This reminded me of a conversation with one of my podcast's guests on learning and development: The only way to learn is by understanding and the best way to understand is by doing. 

This is why I decided to write this post; my own cliff notes on how to use these punctuation marks. I recommend taking the same approach after reading this post if you're looking to improve your writing as well. 

Now let's get more familiar with semi-colons, colons, and dashes.

Semi-Colons (;) 

Period and comma had a child; the semi-colon. Here are two cases of when and how to use it.

To separate items in a list that already have commas.

When I'm on vacation, I like to treat myself to eggs benedict, seafood pasta, or Peruvian ceviche; and local cocktails, beer, or coffee for drinks.

To make three short sentences sound less choppy.

Let's take for example this sentence. 

We went to Sacks for lunch today. We ordered two gourmet sandwiches. A chicken pesto panini and a Sausalito chicken sandwich. 

That sounds choppy; instead, we could semi-separate two of these three sentences. The two you choose depend on what you want to emphasize. 

This paragraph emphasizes our sandwich selection.

#1: We went to Sacks for lunch today. We ordered two gourmet sandwiches; a chicken pesto panini and a Sausalito chicken sandwich. 

This paragraph emphasizes the type of food we ordered.

#2: We went to Sacks for lunch today; we ordered two gourmet sandwiches. A chicken pesto panini and a Sausalito chicken sandwich.

Colons (:)

Use the colon only after a complete sentence and sparingly to avoid breaking up the flow of your writing. Here are some examples.

To Introduce a list.

I wake up early every day to make time for my morning habits: exercising, meditating, writing, and making green juice.

The first word after the colon is not capitalized because the following sentence could not stand on its own. Also the only time is OK to use the colon after "include" is when you're setting up a bullet list. 

To direct attention to a phrase.

The Minimalists introduced me to an important principle: "Love people, use things because the other way never works."

The first word after the colon is capitalized because the following sentence can stand on its own. 

To join two sentences when the second one explains the first.

The killer app of the future is "deep work": the other ones seem to make us less productive most of the time.

To separate titles from subtitles.

Punctuation Marks: When and How to Use Them

Dashes (—)

First thing, a dash is not the same as a hyphen. It's a longer line.

To type a dash on...

  • Mac: (hold) Option + Shift + Hyphen
  • PC: (hold) Alt + 0151
  • Microsoft Word converts two hyphens (--) into a dash (—)

Dashes are the opposite of parenthesis: one whispers while the other one adds drama. Like the colon, dashes are to be used sparingly otherwise they can break the flow of your thoughts.  

To direct attention to a part of a sentence.

Most of my high school classmates were under the illusion that all Spanish-speaking people came from the same country. The reason why most found my answer shocking—"No, I'm not from Mexico."

To emphasize a phrase in the middle of a sentence.

My wife—34 weeks pregnant—created her first prenatal yoga video this weekend!

To mark "bonus phrases".

Every type of social media engagement your post gets—liking, commenting, and sharing—can significantly amplify how many people see it!

To show a pause or interruption in written dialogue.

I was about to leave home to write a blog post at the coffee shop, but then I thought to myself—"Actually, today would be a great day to surprise her with breakfast in bed!"

I really enjoyed writing this post and I hope you gained a good idea about when and how to use these punctuation marks.

Now start practicing right away to give your writing skills a boost. Come up with your own sentences for each of the punctuation's examples.