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Dashes Versus Colons

What's the difference?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #167

dash versus colon

Last week when I was speaking at the Field's End Writers Conference on Bainbridge Island, someone in the audience asked about dashes. When should she use a dash and how is it different from a colon?

Dashes and Drama

The difference between a colon and a dash is pretty subtle: they can both serve to introduce a related element after the sentence, but a dash is a stronger and more informal mark than a colon. Think of a colon as part of the sentence that just ambles along. "Squiggly has two hobbies [and, now I'm going to tell you what they are, colon] cooking and bothering Aardvark."

A colon informs readers that something more is coming along. The words after a colon define or clarify what came before the colon. The two hobbies before the colon are defined after the colon as cooking and bothering Aardvark.

A dash also introduces extra material, but, well, a dash is quite a dramatic punctuation mark. A dashing young man is certainly not an ordinary young man, and if you're dashing off to the store, you're not just going to the store, you're going in a flurry.

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A dash interrupts the flow of the sentence and tells the reader to get ready for some important or dramatic statement. If you added a dash to the "hobbies" sentence it would conceptually read something like this: "Squiggly has two hobbies [wait for it; wait for it; dash] cooking and bothering Aardvark." Wow!

Normally, you don't want to follow a dash with something boring or mundane, so given that there isn't really anything exciting about Squiggly's hobbies, a dash may not be the best choice here. It would be a better choice if that sentence were part of a mystery novel where Aardvark has been attacked with chocolate pudding, and the police were investigating Squiggly's involvement. Then it could be a dramatic announcement that Squiggly's two hobbies are cooking and bothering Aardvark, and a dash would make more sense.

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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