5.5 Semicolons, Colons, Hyphens, Dashes, Parentheses, Ellipses, Slashes


This section of Ch. 5 will cover the following topics:

  • rules for semicolons, colons, hyphens, dashes, parentheses, ellipses, and slashes
  • where the most study is needed

Why lump all the remaining punctuation marks into one section? Because they aren’t used very often. In fact, you could probably make it through college without using any of these punctuation marks more than a few times.

Your focus should be on the first four sections of this chapter: end punctuation, commas, apostrophes, and quotes/italics. Those are very common and commonly misused. If you learn how to use those correctly, you are 99% of the way to mastery over punctuation.

However, there are other punctuation marks. So let’s work through them.


The semicolon looks like a period sitting on top of a comma. It indicates a pause in the sentence. The length of the pause is half way between a comma and a period.

Use a semicolon between two that are not joined by one of the conjunctions called “fanboys.” For example:


A semicolon has absolutely nothing to do with a colon. Don’t confuse the two.

My brother is an insurance salesman; we have great coverage.

Also, use a semicolon as sort of a “super comma” to avoid confusion in a list that already has commas. For example:

I enjoy gardening, my hobby; dancing, my passion; and writing, my job.

The color combinations we can choose are black, white, and grey; green, brown, and black; or red, green, and brown.

You can write all your life and never need a semicolon. A comma or a period will usually work instead. Avoid semicolons unless you have a really good reason, and then be sure to do it right.

Exercise 1

In your notebook, write the following sentences, adding semicolons where needed. If the sentence is correct, write “Correct.”

  1. I did not notice that you were in the office I was at the front desk all day.
  2. Do you want turkey, spinach, and cheese roast beef, lettuce, and cheese or ham, tomato, and cheese?
  3. Please close the blinds there is a glare on the screen.
  4. Unbelievably, no one was hurt in the accident.
  5. Let’s go for a walk the air is so refreshing.



Exceptions to rules happen all the time. In this textbook, a colon is used after “For example” to direct attention to the examples that follow. “For example” is not an independent clause, but this usage is common in business writing.

A colon is used after an to direct a reader’s attention to something that follows, like a list, a quote, an example, or an explanation. For example:

The school website announced the new dean: Sara Rivara.

The Toyota Prius comes in four colors: red, blue, orange, or black.

Mark Twain said it best: “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

However, if the introductory clause is dependent, generally we don’t use a colon. For example:

The Toyata Prius comes in red, blue, orange, and black.

The first letter following a colon is capitalized only if the word is a proper noun, the beginning of a quote, or the beginning of a sentence. Otherwise, do not capitalize a word that follows a colon.

Exercise 2

In your notebook, correct the following sentences by adding colons where needed.

  1. Don’t give up you never know what tomorrow brings.
  2. There are three ways to get to the grocery store by car, by bus, and by foot.
  3. The boss’s message was clear Lateness will not be tolerated.
  4. Next semester, we will read more contemporary authors Zadie Smith, Emma Donoghue and Tea Obreht.
  5. Trust me I have done this before.


The hyphen is a short line, like a minus sign. It is used in four ways:

  • Compound words. A compound word is when two or more words are joined to form a new word. A dictionary will tell you whether a compound word needs a hyphen (as in “water-repellant”), or is written as one word (as in “waterproof”), or is two words (as in “water table”).
  • Words working together as an adjective. When two or more words work together to modify a noun or pronoun, they are connected by a hyphen. For example: “well-known candidate,” “four-year-old child.”
  • Numbers: Hyphenate the written form of fractions and compound numbers, such as “three-fourths” and “twenty-one.”
  • Word breaks: Use a hyphen to divide a word onto two lines. Many word processing programs will do this for you, but if you have to do it yourself, put the hyphen between syllable breaks. (A dictionary will tell you where a word can be divided.)



Be sure you know the difference between a dash and a hyphen.  They are different lengths and they mean different things.

A dash is a long line between words, used to set off a phrase for emphasis. You can enclose text between two dashes or just use one dash to set off a phrase from the beginning or the end of the sentence. For example:

I love movies about other countries–such as Slumdog Millionaire and Roma.

The new students–Oliver, Diego, and Natasha–still need to buy their textbooks.

Unless you have a good reason for using a dash, avoid it. Using dashes creates a choppy feel and generally other punctuation marks work equally well. For example, commas could replace the dashes in the two sentences above.

Exercise 3

In your notebook, clarify the following sentences by adding dashes or hyphens.

  1. Which hair length do you prefer short or long?
  2. My favorite is shoulder length hair.
  3. Marta is taking care of her six month old nephew this weekend.
  4. My homework is three fourths done.
  5. I will be happy to work over the weekend if I can have Monday off.
  6. The groom danced with his new mother in law.


Parentheses come in pairs and enclose information that is secondary to the main sentence (supplemental information and afterthoughts). Notice parentheses curve around the word or words enclosed. For example:


Never put the subject or verb of a sentence in parentheses.

Hospital nurses record a patient’s vital signs (temperature, pulse, blood pressure) every few hours.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has to be the worst movie I’ve seen (so far).

To check if parentheses will work, remember the sentence should make sense if the information within the parentheses is deleted.

Hospital nurses record a patient’s vital signs every few hours.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has to be the worst movie I’ve seen.

Parentheses are also used to enclose an abbreviation that follows the full-length word. The abbreviation is then used instead of the full word throughout the following text. For example:

I attend Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC). When I first registered at MHCC, I was a bit nervous.

Parentheses are also used to enclose in-text citations in research papers (more about this in your next writing class).

Exercise 4

In your notebook, add parentheses to the following sentences. If the sentence is already clear, write “Correct.”

  1. I recommend you try the sushi bar unless you don’t like sushi.
  2. I was able to solve the puzzle after taking a few moments to think about it.
  3. Please complete the questionnaire at the end of this letter.
  4. Has anyone besides me read the assignment?
  5. Please be sure to circle not underline the correct answers.


The ellipsis is three periods. An ellipsis indicates that something has been deleted from an otherwise word-for-word quotation. For example:

According to the review, the new book was “an important contribution to gender studies…in the 21st century.” (This tells us there were additional words between “studies” and “in” in the original quote, but they have been deleted as not relevant to this paragraph. You can’t just take them out; you have to show you are doing so.)

The ellipsis is not usually used at the beginning or end of a quote, just when something is deleted in the middle.


The slash is too casual for most academic writing. One exception is when the slash is used to separate individual lines of poetry that have been written out as one line. For example:

Mary Oliver’s poem starts with this image: “Once I looked inside / the darkness / of a shell folded like a pastry, / and there was a fancy face.”

You also might see a slash used to separate a pair of opposites, like this:

pass/fail, and/or, he/she

This use is discouraged in formal writing. Use “pass or fail” instead. Avoid “and/or”; make up your mind. While sexist language should be avoided, “he/she” isn’t a good way to do that. Either change to a non-gender plural, such as “they,” or rephrase the sentence.


  • The most common punctuation marks are end punctuation, commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks/italics. Study those.
  • All the other punctuation marks are rare. Have a general sense of what they are and, if you decide to use one, look up the rule.


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