Colons, Dashes, Semicolons, and Three Dots to Extend Sentences
The Quick AnswerUse a colon (:) to give more information about something mentioned previously in the sentence. For example:
- He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer.
- The pilot was worried; the elevators were packed with ice.
- Crime does not pay ... as well as politics.
Using ColonsA sentence can be extended with a colon when the writer wishes to expand on something already mentioned in the sentence. (A colon is used to introduce some more information about something previously mentioned in the sentence.) For example:
- There were two pets in the house: a budgie and a cat. (two pets: a budgie and a cat)
- He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer. (one thing: beer)
Using SemicolonsA sentence can be extended with a semicolon when a slight break is preferable to a new sentence. For example:
- No one was hurt in the accident; the only real injury was a broken finger.
- She did not approve of my design at all; she found it crass.
- Everybody knows he is guilty; however, it will never be proven.
- Her own guest was declined; as a result, she left.
- This business will collapse if you do not invest in the staff's well-being; of course, that is just my opinion.
Using Three DotsIf you want to create pause for effect, use three dots. For example:
- I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying. (Woody Allen)
- She had a bath once a year...whether she needed it or not. (Mark Twain)
- Bart, with $10,000, we'd be millionaires! We could buy all kinds of useful things like...love! (Homer Simpson)
- As I moved the bushes, I was not confronted by the deer I had been tracking for two days but...a Bengal tiger.
In this example from a newspaper, three dots have been used as a pause for effect. This is correct.
Using DashesConfused about colons, semicolons, and three dots? Use a dash. The dash performs all the functions of the colon, the semicolon, and three dots mentioned above.
- He blamed his divorce on one thing – beer. (replaces a colon)
- No one was hurt – the only injury was a broken finger. (replaces a semicolon)
- As I moved the bushes, I was not confronted by the deer I had been tracking for two days, but – a Bengal tiger. (replaces three dots)
In this example from a magazine, the author has used a dash as a pause for effect. The author could also have used three dots.
A Colon Is Like an Equals SignMany people like to think of a colon as an equals sign. Look at the examples to the left.
- two pets = a budgie and a cat
- one thing = beer
Colons Are Different from SemicolonsA colon should only be used to extend a sentence when you are introducing words which expand on something previously mentioned. When a slight break is preferable to a new sentence, you should use a semicolon.
- The pilot was worried: the elevators were packed with ice.
What Does In Apposition Mean?The words after the colon are known as an appositive phrase. (It just means an equal phrase.) You can also use the term in apposition to. For example:
- There was only one fish in the vicinity: a great white shark. (In this sentence, great white shark is in apposition to fish.)
- This company has always had the same motto: Try it twice and then sack it. (In this example, Try it twice and then sack it is in apposition to motto.)
Another Use for 3 Dots (Called Ellipsis)Three dots can also be used to show that words have been omitted. This is covered in the lesson about ellipsis in quotations.
- The magazine claims: "The scene in the '70s was...controlled by The Ramones.
Don't Rely Solely On DashesAlthough a dash covers the functions of a colon, a semicolon, and 3 dots, it is worthwhile learning how all are used so you can choose the one that looks best in your sentence. In the example below, there are already several hyphens and dashes. Therefore, using the 3 dots is preferable to another dash.
- Mrs Thomas – the 64-year-old lady from Kent who swore she would never have a facelift – removed the bandages to find...a 40-year-old version of herself.