I read in a punctuation guide that a dash can be used in place of a colon. They provided the following example:

The white sand, the warm water, the sparkling sun—this is what brought them to Hawaii.

However, just to clarify, but what precedes a colon must be an independent clause. Is that not the case for an em dash?

1 Answer 1


Rules were made to be broken. In formal writing, your example might be considered questionable because it does not begin with an independent clause. However, you will regularly see sentences like this in published works of fiction, because they allow a more natural, conversational flow.

The same sentence could be written with a colon, but it would have a different "feel" to it. The problem is that dashes are also used to denote interruption, while colons are not. So with a dash, your sentence connotes a stream of consciousness, with the narrator abruptly generalizing from specific elements to Hawaii as a whole. With a colon, it connotes an itemized list summarized by the thought about Hawaii, a much more dry and academic style of writing. But if you want to be dry and academic, you probably want to recast the whole sentence (and move Hawaii to the front), so it doesn't really work with the colon.

  • So is there a general rule that what comes before a colon AND dash must be a full sentence? In this case, they just broke that rule to allow for a more natural, conversational flow?
    – user27343
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 2:34
  • @user27343: Well, it's more complicated than that because dashes can be used in lots of different ways besides--for example, to set off a parenthetical--so a full statement of "the rule" would require going through all of those uses.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 2:36
  • I'm only referring to the rule about tacking something on to the end of a sentence (not how dashes can replace commas etc.). When a colon is used in that way what precedes the colon must be a full sentence. I thought the same was true for dashes until I saw this example.
    – user27343
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 2:37
  • In general, yes, if you're tacking something on like with a colon, then it should be a complete sentence already. But as I said, this "rule" is frequently broken by published writers. To further complicate it, fiction writers are more likely to use a dash, and formal academics are more likely to use a colon, so you may see the rule more closely adhered to with the colon than with the dash in practice.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 2:41
  • OK, thanks for clarifying. I studied for the ACT recently and was focused on the rigid implementation of "rules" without taking other forms of writing into account.
    – user27343
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 2:51

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