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Colons, Apostrophes, Hyphens and Parentheses – How to Use Them Correctly!

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Punctuation is a crucial part of written English – but while you might have mastered the basics, some aspects of punctuation can be a little more complicated!

Read on to learn more about how to use these parts of punctuation to add variety and style to your written English.

Colons and semicolons

Colons (:) and semicolons (;) might sound quite similar, but they each have quite separate functions.

A colon is usually used to introduce a list of items. For example:

“The clothes I am taking for my holiday are: a swimsuit, some t-shirts, and a pair of jeans.”

You can use it to introduce any kind of list – whether it is a list of objects, such as the example above, or abstract nouns or ideas.

Another way to use the colon is to precede a statement that is being elaborated upon, or added to. For example:

“There was a simple solution to the problem: find something that everyone could enjoy together.”

Semicolons perform a role that is a blend of a full stop and a comma. You can use them to join phrases or sentences together without needing to use a full stop, or a conjunction in between.

For example:

“I like your home; it’s very unique.”

Semicolons are only used to link phrases in this way when they are related to each other – if the phrases contrast or are about different subjects, you should not use a semicolon.


Apostrophes are most commonly used when you are contracting or shortening a phrase. For example:

Phrases that contain “not”: “is not” can be contracted to “isn’t”

Phrases that contain “would”: “you would” can be contracted to “you’d”

Phrases that contain “have”: “they have” can be contracted to “they’ve”

It’s important to make sure that you have the apostrophe in the correct place when using a contraction – so always check that you are using the correct form.

Another way that apostrophes can be used is with the possessive – by adding an apostrophe and an ‘s’ to a noun to show that it belongs to someone or something. For example:

“This is Alan’s bed.”

“The doctor’s office is over there.”

You would also use an apostrophe with plural nouns. Nouns that end in an ‘s’ will have an apostrophe, but no ‘s’.

For example:

“This is the teachers’ lounge.”


Hyphens are used to join two words, or partial words, together to create a new combined word. While the words may have a separate meaning on their own, by combining them in this way, a word that shares qualities from both is created.

For example: “post-modern”, “elf-like”, “co-operate”.

You can also use a hyphen to write compound numbers, including all numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.


Also known as ‘brackets’, parentheses are usually used to separate a statement out from the main sentence, without using a full stop. You can use a pair of parentheses with an opening parenthesis, “(“, at the start of the phrase and a closing parenthesis, “)”, at the end of the phrase. The rest of the sentence can continue as usual, and there is usually no change in punctuation around it.

Comments in parentheses are usually statements that are not directly connected, add some extra information, or provide an afterthought to the main statement.

For example:

“I went to catch the bus to work (I hate having to catch the bus!) and you wouldn’t believe who I met.”

Your turn

Practice using each of these pieces of punctuation in your written English – why not try writing a different sentence using at least one of them?