Colons and Dashes: When you learn them — and you WILL learn them — you’ll love them.

S&W Rule 7: “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.” (p. 7)

  • Ah, the colon. Most misuses of the colon result from placing it within a single independent clause, rather than after one.
    • Easy test: Could the phrase before the colon be a sentence by itself?
    • Example:
      • Wrong: “In order to get a job, you will need: a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
        • The phrase, “In order to get a job, you will need,” could not be a sentence by itself, so the colon is inappropriate.
      • Right:
        • Option 1: Remove the colon altogether
          • “In order to get a job, you will need a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
        • Option 2: Turn the initial phrase into an independent clause
          • “In order to get a job, you will need three things: a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
  • The other important thing to remember about the colon is that the phrase that follows the colon must be directly related to what comes before.
    • Easy Test: Is it a list, an example, or an explanation?
    • Example:
      • Wrong: “The man had an ironic name: he was odd and always wore a leather jacket.”
        • While both parts of the sentence describe the man, they are not directly related – being odd and wearing a leather jacket does not explain why his name is ironic.
      • Right: “The man had an ironic name: they called him ‘Tiny,’ but he was six-feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds.”

S&W Rule 8: “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” (p. 9)

  • The dash has a more informal, relaxed, and conversational tone than the colon. Dashes are not appropriate in formal writing and should always be used sparingly.
  • Example:
    • When he went to class – if he went at all – he sat in the back row and took a nap.
    • The state of his apartment – empty beer bottles on the floor, half-eaten pizza and dirty cereal bowls on the coffee table, and a strange slime coating the sink – suggested that he was no ladies’ man.

 Again, Strunk & White have managed to simplify rules that most grammar books spend entire chapters explaining. Good writing is within reach! Next time we’ll master subject/verb agreement.

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