Colons, Dashes, Semicolons, and Three Dots to Extend Sentences

by Craig Shrives
The Quick Answer

Four Essential Writing Tools

Here are four essential tools to control emphasis and reading flow and to add variety to sentence structures:
ToolUse and Example
Use a colon (:) to give more information about something mentioned previously in the sentence. For example:
  • He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer.
  • (One thing = beer)
Use a semicolon (;) when a slight break is preferable to starting a new sentence. For example:
  • The pilot was worried; the elevators were packed with ice.
  • (A semicolon gives a smoother transition than a period (full stop).)
Use three dots (...) as a pause for effect. For example:
  • Crime does not pay ... as well as politics.
  • (These three dots are called "ellipsis.")
If you can't remember any of the rules above, use a dash ( — ). It covers all three.
four great writing tools to extend a sentence

Using Colons

A 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)
You can think of a colon as an equals sign. Something on the left must equal something on the right. Using a colon like this is a great way to control emphasis. The words after the colon are read like a punchline.

The "Punchline" Is an Appositive. The words after the colon are known as an appositive. (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 example, "a great white shark" is in apposition to "only one fish.")
  • This company has always had the same motto: Try it twice and then sack it.
  • (Here, "Try it twice and then sack it" is in apposition to "the same motto.")
Read more about using colons.

Using Semicolons

A 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.
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose.
Quite often, there is a short phrase immediately after the semicolon that acts like a bridge between both halves of the sentence. It is called a transitional phrase (or more formally a conjunctive adverb). For example (with the transitional phrases shaded):
  • 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. 
Read more about using semicolons.

Using Three Dots

If you want to create pause for effect, use three dots (called ellipsis). For example:
  • I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying. (Actor Woody Allen)
  • She had a bath once a year...whether she needed it or not. (Author 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.
  • (This is real-life example from a newspaper.)
Another Use for 3 Dots. 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 1970s was...controlled by The Ramones.
Read more about using ellipsis.

Using Dashes

Confused about colons, semicolons, and ellipsis? Use a dash. The dash performs all the above-mentioned functions of the colon, the semicolon, and ellipsis for a pause. For example:
  • He blamed his divorce on one thing – beer.
  • (Here, the dash replaces a colon.)
  • No one was hurt – the only injury was a broken finger.
  • (The dash 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.
  • (The desh replaces three dots.)
  • (This is a real-life example from a magazine. A dash has been used to replace an ellipsis used as pause.)
Don't Rely Solely On Dashes. Although a dash covers the functions of a colon, a semicolon, and ellipsis for a pause, it is worth 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.
  • Julia Thomas – the 64-year-old lady from Boston who swore she would never have a facelift – removed the bandages to find...a 40-year-old version of herself.
Read more about using dashes.  
Warning!


You can use these techniques to add variety to your sentence structures and to control emphasis and reading flow. Do not overuse them!

Remember that the best writing is concise, precise, and full of well-selected verbs.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

How to use colons to extend sentences Run-on error with a comma Commas after a transitional phrase Conjunctions and commas Conjunctions and semicolons Using semicolons to extend a sentence