Punctuation Part Four: Colons, Em-Dashes, Parentheses and Ellipses


To end this series on Punctuation I’ll be discussing Colons (:), Em-dashes (—), and Parentheses ( ).  As a bonus we will also discuss one of my favorite punctuation marks … the ellipsis.  All of these punctuation marks offset information. This information can be: an aside; either nonessential, or supplemental information; a clarification of a thought; or a way to offer another point of view. In the case of the ellipsis, the three little dots in a row indicate an omission.


Using a Colon: Colons are used when formatting a list. They are always used after a complete thought and interpret, or amplify the first thought. A colon also can introduce a quotation that supports the preceding clause.

  • Example (Formatting a list): The well-dressed tennis player’s equipment includes: a towel, a visor, two absorbent wrist bands, and a top level tennis racket.
  • Example (Interpret the first clause): “All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
  • Example (Quote that supports the preceding clause): The squalor of the streets reminded her of a line from Oscar Wilde: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”


Using Em-dashes: The em-dash(—)  can be used to offset nonessential information, to switch focus, or to bring focus to a list. Em-dashes are more relaxed than parentheses. Em-dashes have replaced using parentheses in most creative writing other than to offset a complete sentence.

  •  Example (Setting off non-essential Information): Judy always thought she was an expert at tennis—she’s really not.
  • Example (Switching focus): I’ll tell you what I hate about feeding the chickens—on second thought, I’d better not.
  • Example (Bringing focus to a list): Sunscreen, tennis balls, tennis racket, and visor—everything was packed for playing tennis this afternoon.
  • Example (Replacing parentheses): They climbed into the small cart—Jimmy with difficulty—and they were off.


Using Parentheses: Parentheses are used to offset a complete sentence or thought, such as an aside. They also can be used similar to an em-dash to separate explanatory information or qualifying expression.

  •  Example (Aside): I went to her work yesterday (my third attempt to see her), but she had gone out of town.
  • Example (Separate a qualifying statement): I’ve seen “ok” (incorrect),”OK” or “okay” all in a single manuscript.
  • Example (off set a complete thought): It doesn’t matter which you use “OK” or “okay”, just so you are consistent. (Tip: If you find you have been using both, it is easier to Find —and Replace “okay” which solves the problem in seconds.)


Bonus, Using The Ellipsis: The ellipsis (plural Ellipses) indicates that you are omitting something. The ellipsis is composed of three dots. However if the ellipsis comes at the end of a complete sentence then a period is needed. It is often used in dialogue to indicate an interruption, or an incomplete thought. Here are some examples:

  • Example (An omission of words): Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence that men had the God-given right to govern themselves: “When in the course of human events … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
  •  Example (Indicating an interruption): “What I meant by that was … what was that?”
  • Example (An incomplete thought): “I would so like to return to Paris, its beautiful streets, the Eiffel tower, and ….”


I hope you have found this series to be helpful. I would love to hear from you. Comments are welcome!

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