Well, the exam season is just upon us and Dear Candidate I felt you should know that . . .

There are some unusual punctuation marks which students avoid YET could be the trick to an excellent grade.

This is a FOUR part series of excellent tips on the brilliant subject: AWESOME WAYS TO RAISE YOUR GRADE IN ENGLISH@ HIGH SCHOOL.

So Dear Folks, bless yourselves for some good ideas on the subject that really matters to students and parents, as well as English Teachers at High School.

“The problem with poor punctuation is that it makes life difficult for the reader who needs to read and understand what you have written” – The Penguin Guide To Punctuation

By the time students enter High School, they will have conquered and mastered the uses of a period/full stop, the comma, various uses of the capital letters, the question mark and the apostrophe.

Many, and I mean the majority of students, would know what a colon or semi-colon looks like; ellipsis; brackets and dashes; but wouldn’t know when or how to use them. This is what I want to share with you here: where, how and when to use these punctuation marks.

The colon and semi-colon; ellipsis, brackets and dashes are important in raising a student’s grade.

Throughout my teaching career as well as being a GCSE/IGCSE and GCE Examiner, I have noticed that these unusual punctuation marks are rarely used. Yet by using

  • colons (:) and semi-colons (;)
  • the hyphen, dashes (-)
  • parenthesis/brackets ( ), [ ]
  • ellipsis (. . .)
  • using numbers in writing

enhances a student’s writing repertoire.


Punctuation is one of the most important aspects of written English desired by English Teachers. It is indeed, the feature of writing that gives meaning to the written word.

GOOD PUNCTUATION shows a lot about any particular student as it portrays the student’s good knowledge about grammatical structures. It can radically change the meaning of a text and helping readers understand what writers are trying to say. Ultimately, punctuation assist any writer in achieving clarity towards what they are trying to communicate or convey to their audience.

Thus, through GOOD PUNCTUATION, the meaning of any piece of written work, whether a sentence or a passage, becomes more clearly and easily understood. Similarly, any omission, using a different sign or failing to punctuate correctly can alter the meaning of a sentence.

Around half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants, says the Recruitment and Employment Commission (REC), contain spelling or grammatical errors, and these are most likely to be made by those aged between 21 and 25. In this age group, graduates are twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university.

pexels-photo-279470.jpegDon’t be confused by these terms which you shall be meeting quite often:

Clause –  a group of related words that contain a subject and a verb. It is a sentence!

Independent clause  – a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence. It has both a subject and a verb and forms a complete thought.

Dependent clausea group of words with a subject and a verb. It does not express a complete thought so it is not a sentence and can’t stand alone. These clauses include adverb clauses, adjective clauses and noun clauses.

Transitional phrases – phrases or words that create better flow in your writing to form strong, logical connections, eg: In addition, for example, Although, etc.

Coordinating conjunctionthey make things go together by joining together words, phrases and independent clauses. They are seven of them – and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. You can remember them by the acronym FANBOYS, where F= For, A=And, N=Nor, B=But, O=Or, Y=Yet and S=So.


The colon is a widely misused but very useful piece of punctuation. By using it correctly, it can add precision to your written work as well as impressing your tutors and future employers. There are not many people around who are able to use colons correctly.

The colon has a number of functions:

To introduce an idea between two independent clauses when the second explains or illustrates the first – It is used to introduce an idea that is an explanation or continuation of the one that comes before the colon. The colon can be considered as a gateway inviting the reader to go on. Have a look at these examples:

  • You are left with only one option: Press on until you have mastered it.
  • There is one thing you need to know about coleslaw: it looks and tastes like slurry.

In the above examples you have some idea of what will come after the colon. It is important to note that the clause that comes before the colon can stand alone and makes complete sense on its own.

If the initial clause cannot stand alone and makes complete sense, you should not use a colon.

To introduce a list – The second main use of the colon is to introduce a list. You need to take care that many people assume that a colon always precedes a list. This is not the case. Again it is important to remember that the clause that precedes the colon must make complete sense on its own.

  • The bookstore specializes in three subjects: art, architecture and graphic design.
  • The potion contained some exotic ingredients: snails’ eyes, bats’ tongues and garlic.

In the above sentences, the clause preceding the colon has a subject and a predicate and makes complete sense on its own.

Do not, however, use a colon when the listed items are incorporated into the flow of the sentence, eg:

  • The bookstore specializes in art, architecture, and graphic design.
  • The magic potion contained sesame seeds, bran flakes and coleslaw.

In the sentences above a colon should not be used, as the clause that would precede it would not make sense alone.

To isolate a point for emphasis –  The colon can be used to emphasize a phrase or single word at the end of a sentence, eg:

  • There’s only one word I can use to describe that: fabulous.

To introduce quoted material – It can also be used after a clause introducing quoted material. Have a look at this example.

  • The teacher often used her favourite quotation from Monty Python: ‘I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition.’

If the colon precedes a quotation, you should begin the language of that quote with a capital letter.

Non-Grammatical Uses of The Colon

Time – The colon is used to separate hours from minutes, with no space before or after the colon, eg; 11:35 a.m.

Ratio – The colon is used to express a ratio of two numbers, with no space before or after the colon, eg: 1:3

Biblical references – The colon is used in biblical references to separate chapter from verse, with no space before or after the colon, eg: Genesis 1:31.

Correspondence – The colon is frequently used in business and personal correspondence, eg: cc: Tom Smith; Attention: Accounts Payable; PS: Don’t forget your swimsuit.

Other references – The colon is used to separate the volume from page numbers of a cited work, with no space before or after the colon. Punctuation Quarterly 4:86–89 (reads as “pages 86 through 89 of volume four”)


Having mastered the correct use of the colon, it is useful to make it work for you in your writing. Using a colon can add emphasis to an idea. For example, consider the following two sentences:

  • The one thing mankind cannot live without is hope.
  • There is one thing that mankind cannot live without: hope.

Both sentences are grammatically correct, but the second makes the point a little more forcefully. Now we are in the realms of style, it is important to emphasise that you, as the writer, have to decide how to make your newfound expertise with punctuation work for you. Do not be tempted to overuse colons. They are powerful but should be used with precision and care.

The most important thing to remember about colons is that you only use them after statements that are complete sentences.


The semi-colon is a hugely powerful punctuation mark. Getting it right will not only impress your teachers and future employers, it will allow you to express your ideas and opinions with more subtlety and precision than ever before.

The good news is that it is simple and easy to use and should take you no more than a few minutes to master.

A semi-colon is most commonly used to link (in a single sentence) two  independent clauses that are closely related in thought.

When a semi-colon is used to join two or more ideas (parts) in a sentence, those ideas are then given equal position or rank.

  • Some people write with a word processor; others write with a pen or pencil.
  • Terry always slept with the light on; he was afraid of the dark.

The two clauses here are closely connected but the link has not been made explicit. They could have been separated by a full stop, eg:

  • Some people write with a word processor. Others write with a pen or pencil.
  • Terry always slept with the light on. He was afraid of the dark.

They could have been connected by a conjunction too.

  • Terry always slept with the light on because he was afraid of the dark.
  • Terry always slept with the light on, as he was afraid of the dark.

In this instance we have changed the second clause into a dependent clause; it is directly dependent on the first clause.

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses which have closely related ideas by employing conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.

  • But however they choose to write, people are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear by their writing methods.

Use a semicolon between items in a list or series if any of the items contain commas to avoid confusion between listed items. In most lists a comma is enough to separate the items. In a complicated list, it is perfectly acceptable to use the semicolon to make the list more understandable.

  • There are basically two ways to write: with a pen or pencil, which is inexpensive and easily accessible; or by computer and printer, which is more expensive but quick and neat.

Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction if the clauses are already punctuated with commas or if the clauses are lengthy.

  • Some people write with a word processor, typewriter, or a computer; but others, for different reasons, choose to write with a pen or pencil.

If you are going to use a semicolon to connect two clauses, it is very important that the two clauses are both independent. That means that each clause has to be able to stand alone and make complete sense without the other. If either one cannot stand alone, a semi-colon cannot be used.


Avoid using a comma when a semicolon is needed

  • Incorrect: The cow is brown, it is also old.
  • Correct: The cow is brown; it is also old.

What’s going on here?  Both parts of the sentence are independent clauses, and commas should not be used to connect independent clauses if there is no coordinating conjunction. This mistake is known as a comma splice. 

  • Incorrect: I like cows, however, I hate the way they smell.
  • Correct: I like cows; however, I hate the way they smell.

What’s going on here?  The conjunctive adverb however signals a connection between two independent clauses, and commas should not be used to connect independent clauses if there is no coordinating conjunction.

  • Incorrect: I like cows: they give us milk, which tastes good, they give us beef, which also tastes good, and they give us leather, which is used for shoes and coats.

What’s going on here?  It’s unclear what the three listed items are, since the items are separated by commas. Now look at these corrected sentences:

  • Correct: I like cows: they give us milk, which tastes good; they give us beef, which also tastes good; and they give us leather, which is used for shoes and coats.
  • Correct: Cows, though their bovine majesty has been on the wane in recent millenia, are still one of the great species of this planet; domesticated, yet proud, they ruminate silently as we humans pass tumultuously by.

Avoid using a semicolon when a comma is needed:

  •  Incorrect: Because cows smell; they offend me.
  • Correct: Because cows smell, they offend me.

What’s going on here? The first part is not an  independent clause, so no semicolon is required.

Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed. By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.

Again, Dear Reader, the use of the colon and semi-colon is not an easy concept to master if you don’t practice using them. Use them in your everyday writing so that they become second nature. When you get to the exam season, it will just be a walk in the park!

Good luck in all your endeavours.

As of old: Be EMPOWERED and EXCEL!



  1. Mohammad says:

    Very well. These seem good. However, as a student, I would advise on focusing on practice more than learning ‘ grammatical theories.’ Most grammar lessons at school were just the teacher giving information. If students are encouraged to practice more than to listen, I think they will learn the rules better and faster. As known by all, “practice makes perfect.”

  2. pupo says:

    Very insightful indeed.This information is crucial not only to students but to adults as well. It has been informative. i appreciate the teachings.

  3. andrew mutyavaviri says:

    Wow didnt even.know tht there ws tht vast difference btwn a collon nd a semicolon.thought they cud b used secondary school daughter wil find this post very.helpful an informative .No wonder why english is a second language nd people.misuse e queens language knowingly.or e same thanks mate.this one i wil put a star on

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