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


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

  • using 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 none of them are 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 commonly used and frequently 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.  What it looks like can help you remember that the length of the pause: longer than a comma but less than a period.

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses 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 use them correctly.



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 kind of exception is common in business writing.

The colon looks like a period sitting on top of another period.

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

The college website introduced the new dean: Sara Rivara.

The Toyota Prius comes in four colors: red, orange, blue, 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 the word that follows a colon.

Exercise 1

Type up the following sentences, adding semicolons or colons where needed.  To do this assignment correctly, you must know how these two punctuation marks are different.

  1. There are three ways to get to the grocery store by car, by bus, and by foot.
  2. I did not notice that you were in the office I was at the front desk all day.
  3. Do you want turkey, spinach, and cheese roast beef, lettuce, and cheese or ham, tomato, and cheese?
  4. Please close the blinds there is a glare on the screen.
  5. Next semester, we will read contemporary authors Zadie Smith, Emma Donoghue and Tea Obreht.


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.)



To create a dash, type two hyphens.  In Word, if you don’t put any spaces before or after the hyphens and hit the space bar after the next word, the two hyphens should turn into a single long line.

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 2

Type up the following sentences, adding dashes or hyphens where necessary.

  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.


Parentheses come in pairs and are placed before and after information that is secondary or supplemental to the main sentence (such as an afterthought).  Notice parentheses curve around the word or words.  For example:


You will never put the subject or verb of a sentence in parentheses because they are never secondary information.

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 are needed, the sentence should still make sense if the information in 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 throughout the rest of the text.  For example:

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

And parentheses are used to enclose in-text citations in research papers (more about this next term).

Exercise 3

Type up the following sentences, adding parentheses where necessary. 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 although I had to think carefully.
  3. Please complete the questionnaire at the end of this letter.
  4. Has anyone in the class read the assignment?
  5. Be sure to circle not underline the correct answers.

Remember to ask yourself if the information makes sense without the words enclosed in parentheses.


An ellipsis looks like three periods in a row.  It 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 situation. You can’t just take the words out of a quote; you have to show you are doing so.

Ellipses are not usually necessary 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

But this use is discouraged in formal writing.  The more formal “pass or fail” should be used 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.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

1, 2, 3 Write! Copyright © 2020 by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.