Colon vs Dash

As always, if you have any helpful tips to add or a different opinion, please pass them along!

When to use a dash vs a colon or semi-colon?

A colon is used between two parts of a sentence that relate to each other. The words that follow the colon are used to clarify or describe the words that preceded the colon:

  • I love traveling abroad: the architecture, the food, the people.

A dash is used when you want the reader to pay attention to something more exciting than the typical or mundane details of a routine sentence.

  • I have always loved traveling abroad – and I would scratch and save every dime to be able to do it again!

The word following a colon should only be capitalized if it is a proper noun or if it starts a complete sentence. So using the first sentence above, the word “the” would only be capitalized if we changed it to a complete sentence:

  • I love traveling abroad; The architecture, the food, and the people have always been intriguing to me.

But notice, I changed from a colon to a semi-colon. Why? Because colons are used when you are adding further description or clarity to the words that preceded the colon, which this sentence above did do. However, since it was changed to a complete sentence, it was strong enough to stand on its own, so a semi-colon was appropriate. Here’s an example of when a colon would be used, because “London, Paris, anywhere” is not a complete sentence, so it could not stand on its own.

  • I love traveling abroad: London, Paris, anywhere!

A colon should also be used when providing an explanation or a rule to the independent clause that precedes it:

  • I knew all to well what the keys were to weight loss: I needed to eat healthy food and exercise regularly.

Also use semi-colons to separate items on a list:

  • She brought several bags of bananas; three boxes of cereal; and five pounds of chicken.

To reiterate, semi-colons are separators – they separate either lists or two related clauses that could stand alone as two separate sentences if you wanted them to:

  • He poured me a cup of coffee; it was scalding hot, so I had to wait 15 minutes for it to cool off.

And colons are binders – they bring two clauses together that could not stand alone as two separate sentences.

Think of it this way:  If the two sides are balanced, they don’t need something as strong as a full colon between them. If they can’t stand alone, they need the strength of a full colon. Another way to think of it is the semi-colon will only curtsy (the bottom comma of the semi-colon looks like a curtsy to me), to a sentence strong enough that it deserves a bow. Ok, a bit goofy, but it may help you to remember!

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