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Punctuation – the colon (:), semicolon (;) and dash (-)

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The colon can be used to give details of a word or phrase before it:
I have many hobbies: running, dancing and playing the violin.
I’ve got quite a few things to do this weekend: do the shopping, put my winter clothes away and collect my friend from the airport.
The islands have many attractions: wonderful beaches, a vibrant nightlife, good shopping and an interesting history.

The colon

The colon (:) can also be used before a direct speech quotation and after a greeting in a letter:
He thought for a moment and then said: ‘Yes, I’ll buy the house.’
(the start of a letter) Dear Sir:

The semicolon

The main use of a semicolon (;) is to replace a full stop between sentences when we want to connect the two sentences more closely. However many writers rarely use semicolons.

The silence was broken by a muffled thump. It was the sound of feet landing on the thick rug; we were not alone in the house.

The dash

A single dash (-) marks a break in a sentence. The reader is asked to pause for a moment before continuing.

This day would be the best day of her life. Today she would be rid of the biggest problem in her life – her husband.

Writers can use two dashes to separate information that is not essential to the rest of the sentence.

He stepped out of the car – not the most expensive he could find – and checked he had all the photos.

Lesson by Tristan, English teacher at EC Malta English school

Decide whether the following can have a colon (:), semicolon (;) or a dash (-)

  • 1) There are so many things to do in London ___ there’s the theatre, the shopping, the sights and the parks.

  • 2) I had a few days off last week and I knew exactly where to spend them ___ the beach.

  • 3) I love working in advertising. You have so many challenges ___ being creative, working in a team, keeping clients happy and meeting deadlines.

  • 4) He decided to spend a few days in the country ___ the tranquillity helped him think.

  • 5) David read the letter and he smiled ___ 'I've got the job.'

  • 6) Paul realised that it was getting late and the wind was getting stronger ___ he knew it was time to go home.