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The meanings of semicolon, colon, and dash for TOEFL reading


Punctuation marks

TOEFL reading passages employ the formal writing style, which is characterized by precise word choice, use of the third-person perspective, and use of punctuation marks, such as semicolons, colons and dashes, that follow formal style. So, understanding the use of punctuation marks in formal writing style is necessary to decode the passage. This skill is especially needed to answer paraphrase questions. So in this section, we examine the following punctuation marks that occur frequently in TOEFL reading passages: semicolon, colon and dash.


In the TOEFL passage, semicolons are used in two ways: as a coordinating conjunction and as a super-comma. Used as a coordinating conjunction, a semicolon can conjoin two independent clauses. To make the relationship of ideas between a semicolon clear, a conjunctive adverb is often used after a semicolon. These are examples of semicolons used as coordinating conjunctions:

She is funny; I like her.

She is funny; accordingly, I like her.

I like her; moreover, she is funny.

Used as a super-comma, a semicolon can separate items in a list, when some of those items already contain commas. Consider this sentence:

He brought ripe bananas, shiny red apples, small, sweet, juicy grapes, and firm pears.

The sentence is confusing with no visual cues about which words should be grouped together. The commas between items can be “bumped up” a notch and turned into semicolons, so that readers can easily tell how many items are in the list and which words go together:

He brought ripe bananas; shiny red apples; small, sweet, juicy grapes; and firm pears.


In the TOEFL passage, colons are used in two ways: to provide an explanation and to introduce a list. When used to provide an explanation, the colon functions in much the same way as the semicolon, but the relationship between the two ideas is much closer with a colon since idas after a colon serves as an explanation. 

I have very little time to prepare for the speech: it starts in an hour.

All three of her children are involved in the arts: the first is a sculptor; the second, her only daughter, is a pianist; and the third is a poet.

When a colon is used to introduce a list, the clause before a colon must be an independent clause..

We covered many of the fundamentals in our writing class: grammar, punctuation, style, and voice.

The bookstore specializes in three subjects: art, architecture, and graphic design. 


In formal writing, dashes are usually avoided as they break the flow abruptly. In the TOEFL passage, however, dashes are often found. Dashes have three main functions: to emphasize, to mark extra information and to embed a list. Used for emphasis, dashes are meant to add drama. Dashes indicate that the reader should pay more attention to the material after the dash

I have always known what I want to be—a dancer!

We watched one of the most iconic movies of all time — the Godfather

Secondly, dashes can also indicate that the information after the dash is extra information. These are examples:

Genocide—the systematic killing of a racial group—is an atrocity that has created black holes in history.

The building next to ours—the one with the all-cedar exterior—was engulfed in flames.

A colon can introduce a list of items at the end of a clause. But if we need to embed a list of items within a sentence, we can use dashes.

The essential qualities of an athlete—discipline, inspiration, and hard work—can be learned..

These are essential qualities of an athlete: discipline, inspiration, and hard work. They can be learned.

Phrases that clarify or add information but are not necessary to the meaning of a sentence are ordinarily set off with commas. But when the phrase itself already contains one or more commas, dashes can help readers understand the structure of the sentence. When used to indicate extra information, that information can be minimized when paraphrasing.