Three Commonly Confused Punctuation Marks

These days, punctuation is something of an endangered species. The rise of electronic communications means that some punctuation marks are increasingly redundant. These days, many of us confine ourselves to the comma, the full stop, the quotation mark, the exclamation mark and the question mark. This may appear to make life simple when you’re writing.

There are times, however, when the comma just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you want to convey a specific message with your sentence, and colons, semi colons and dashes can help you do that. Unfortunately, because they’re increasingly rare, some people don’t know how to use them, or even what they are. Yet they play a specific role within a sentence and give your sentence structure.

Punctuation is a confusing business.
Punctuation is a confusing business.

Here’s a guide to how to use the semi colon, colon and dash.

Semicolon (;)

A semicolon joins two short sentences together. While the parts could stand alone, they work better together. For example, you could write Truth ennobles man. Learning adorns him. However, the effect would be a bit staccato and it’s hard to see how they relate to each other. If you join them together with a semicolon (truth ennobles man; learning adorns him), you create a stronger sentence that flows more easily.

Colon (:)

Colons are used to introduce a list, such as For their picnic, they bought: cheese, bread, ham, tomatoes, bread and drinks. A colon is also used to introduce an important point you’re about to make, such as My advice is: always do the unexpected. In this example, the colon replaces the joining word as follows, and it can also be used to replace words like for instance and because, so it streamlines your sentences.

Dash (–)

When we’re talking, a thought will often pop up mid sentence. We interrupt ourselves with that thought and then return to our main thought. If you want to convey that sort of interruption in writing, you use a dash. The party lasted – we knew it would – far longer than planned. To be specific, the type of dash you use is an em dash ( – ) not to be confused with an en-dash (–), which is used for ranges of numbers (0-9).

In what other ways do you use these punctuation marks? What other punctuation marks confuse you?

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3 thoughts on “Three Commonly Confused Punctuation Marks

  1. I’ve seen the colon and semi-colon being used in tandem to introduce a list and then to insert clear separations between its items to reduce ambiguity. Think of the semi-colons as “dividers”.

    Take the famous example from a TV listing in the London Times many years ago…

    “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector…”

    It becomes much clearer with:

    “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with: Nelson Mandela; an 800-year-old demigod; a dildo collector…”

    Or there was a famous poem circulating around the Twitter machine a few months ago about the Oxford comma. It describes a a petition in favour of the Oxford comma, and the long list of signatories ends with “the Queen, a well-known madam and a prostitute”.

    Using semi-colons would have separated the signatories more decisively and got shut of the ambiguity.

    1. That’s brilliant, Mel. I didn’t want to confuse the issue by putting in the use of semi colons in lists, as it is quite an obscure use of them, but they are used in lists where there are already commas, to divide them into chunks. You’d see them more in lists with phrases or even sentences rather than single words. Your example shows how important clarity in punctuation is.

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