What this resource is about:

This resource explains how to use uncommon types of punctuation. 

Semicolon: half period, half comma 

A semicolon connects two independent clauses (complete sentences). The semicolon can also be used to separate items in lists; often, lists this detailed need simplifying, but semicolons may be used. 


  • Semicolons are the quickest fix when you have a run-on sentence connected by a comma splice. 
  • Rule of thumb: the sentences on either side of the semicolon must be complete sentences! 


  • Don’t use with a coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or). 
  • Don’t capitalize the first letter of the second clause. 


Colon: thought B describes thought A 

A colon precedes an explanation, an enumeration, or list of items: what follows the colon proves, explains, defines, describes, or lists elements of what preceded it. 


  • Great to use for crafting an academic paper title! 
  • A colon adds ‘punch’ to a list of descriptive attributes at the end of a sentence. 


  • The clause before the colon must be a complete sentence, but the clause following it does not have to be. 


Em dash: throwing in a dash of description 

The em dash can take the place of commas, parentheses, or colons to connect descriptive material. 


  • To format an em dash in Word, type two hyphens, with no spaces, between the words—the dash will automatically form as you continue typing. In Google docs, use insert special character. 
  • When injecting a descriptive clause into a sentence, you are free to use em dashes, commas, or parentheses. Think of them as shouting, speaking, and whispering, respectively. 
  • When used to set off descriptive material at the end of a sentence, only a single dash is used. 
  • Two or more em dashes can also be used to indicate missing portions of a word or expletives. 


  • There should be no space between the words and the dash — unless you are using AP style. 
  • Just like commas, excessive em dash use can bog down a paper. Stick to 2 or 3 per paragraph. 


En dash: the one you didn’t even know existed 

The en dash indicates spans or differentiation. It is what should (officially) be used between numbers in a sequence. 


  • En dashes can generally be found in the “special characters” menu of a word processor. 


  • When creating compound words, like C-3PO and sister-in-law, you can simply use a hyphen instead of an en dash.


Hyphen: actually not an em dash, despite how you try to use it. 

A hyphen is the shortest of the dashes and is used to create compound words. 


  • The hyphen works on the word, not sentence, level by formulating a compound term. 
  • Compound adjectives almost always need hyphenation: less-than-stellar, one-on-one, etc. 
  • Always check a dictionary to see if the term is an open, hyphenated, or closed compound. Keep in mind that many compound nouns start out open or hyphenated before eventually becoming closed, with dictionaries often behind current usage. What used to be hyphenated—to-daygood-by—eventually became closed compounds. 


Handy Resource: thepunctuationguide.com