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

Extending a Sentence (Four Essential Writing Tools)

homesitemapcommon errors colons, dashes, semicolons, and three dots to extend sentences
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. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (two pets: a budgie and a cat)
  • He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • Never pick a fight with an ugly person; they've got nothing to lose. correct tick
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. correct tick
  • Her own guest was declined; as a result, she left. correct tick
  • This business will collapse if you do not invest in the staff's well-being; of course, that is just my opinion. correct tick
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. correct tick (Actor Woody Allen)
  • She had a bath once a year...whether she needed it or not. correct tick (Author Mark Twain)
  • Bart, with $10,000, we'd be millionaires! We could buy all kinds of useful things like...love! correct tick (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. correct tick

This is a 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. correct tick
  • (Here, the dash replaces a colon.)
  • No one was hurt – the only injury was a broken finger. correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
  • (The dash 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. correct tick
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.
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This page was written by Craig Shrives.

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