A Punctuation Guide: Em Dash or Colon

Have you ever wondered when an em dash or colon should be used in a sentence? Or what is the difference between the two punctuations? Well, that depends entirely on how you want to present your data. The confusion between a colon, semi-colon, or dash is pretty common. To understand the difference, here’s a quick run-down on the usage of an em dash and colon.

What Is an Em Dash?

The dash, specifically an em dash, is the most versatile punctuation mark. Despite its versatility, this dash differs from other hyphens and dashes significantly in both usage and appearance.

In fact, the dash (—) is named for its length as it is the same width as the capital letter M in the alphabet. On the other hand, it has another variation named an “en dash (–),” which is slightly narrower. It has a similar width as a capital letter N. The narrowest of all these dashes is a hyphen (-).

When to Use an Em Dash?

Em dashes have various uses and can be used in place of other punctuations. However, this punctuation is more like a semicolon which is underutilized in writing. An em dash can be used as a comma, parentheses, or colon, although it has a somewhat different effect in each case. Let’s look at two common instances where an em dash can be replaced in place of different punctuation.

An Em Dash Instead of a Comma

When writing a parenthetical phrase, you can use dashes in pairs to replace commas. Dashes have a slightly more emphatic feel, making the reader focus on the information placed inside the special marks.

Commas usually balance appositives, which are small segments of information for clarification. But when you have multiple commas in an appositive, the content can confuse the reader. In such cases, you can use em dashes instead of a comma.

Confusing Sentence: The three of us, Laura, Jenny, and I, went on a 3-day trip last month.

Clear Sentence: The three of us — Laura, Jenny, and I — went on a 3-day trip last month.

An Em Dash Instead of Parentheses

Place a pair of dashes in the same spot as you’d put parentheses. Dashes are less formal than parentheses, and they’re also more noticeable. Use dashes to attract emphasis to the content of the parentheses. An em dash creates a more noticeable stoppage and, as a result, more emphasis.

Remember that when using dashes instead of parentheses, the surrounding punctuation should be omitted.

With parentheses: There has been a major increase (though opposed by the students) in the tuition fees of private university students.

With an em dash: There has been a major increase — though opposed by the students — in the tuition fees of private university students.

An Em Dash Instead of a Colon

An em dash might be used instead of a colon when you wish to emphasize the conclusion or end of a sentence. You can use a colon between the clause and the list when a statement starts with an independent clause and concludes with a list.

However, when the list appears first, it’s best to connect the list to the clause with an em dash. This helps the reader to easily digest the idea of potentially different items and focus them on one thing.

Example: The clear blue water, the open sky, the glorious sunshine — all I wish to witness in the Maldives.

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What Is a Colon?

A colon can be used to introduce information in a sentence to clarify the point better. You can use a colon to divide a sentence into two independent clauses if the clauses are directly related. The colon can emphasize the second clause for clarity.

Example: The roads are blocked due to rain: You won’t reach on time.

A semicolon or a colon would be appropriate when dividing a statement into two independent clauses. While a semicolon can separate the sentences into independent clauses in a gentle way, a colon does so with a powerful impact.

When to Use a Colon?

The colon is preferable in most writing where there are extensive lists involved. The rules of the colon are strict but easy to use and remember. Below are the most common usage of colons in writing:

Introduce an Item or List

Use a colon at the end of the introductory sentence to introduce a list of items or a series.

Example: The three important things in life: family, friends, and food.

Note that you should capitalize the first letter of the list if it starts with a proper noun.

Example: My three favorite countries to visit are: Paris, Greece, and New York.

Separate Independent Clauses

Separating independent clauses using colons will help you explain, illustrate, or expand an idea of a sentence better.

Example: John deserved the job: he worked too hard for it.

Em Dash or Colon: What Is the Difference?

When it comes to punctuation, knowing whether to use an em dash or a colon is important. An em dash or colon is part of the same toolkit, but they serve slightly different purposes.

A colon is a more formal but weaker punctuation mark than an em dash. When you want to highlight the end of your statement without giving it all to a colon, use an em dash. An em dash is preferred to divide elements within a sentence and pack a punch.

Colon: Let’s go to the most contemporary sightseeing attraction: Dubai!

Em dash: Let’s go to the most contemporary sightseeing attraction Dubai!

Wrapping Up

An em dash is traditionally used for creating emphasis, a sudden break in the sentence, or a pointed way of emphasizing what you’re saying. A colon is used when you want to introduce items in a list. As a punctuation mark, a colon separates two independent clauses. Whether to use an em dash or colon — this article will help you understand the difference and how to use them in context.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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