Punctuation Tip: When and When Not to Use the Colon

Some time back, I had published two articles on punctuation, one on using commas correctly and another on using quotation marks and italics correctly. As I believe time is now high to come back to the topic, here is a post on using the colon correctly.

Colon (:) is one of the oldest punctuation marks in use in English for more than four centuries. Here is where you will use a colon in written language.

Shows What Follows

The major use of a colon is to show you what follows after a related statement has been made. The colon in this regard attracts attention to a list of items or an explanation. For instance:

During my holidays, I occasioned to pass through these places of interest: the Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, and the Angkor Wat.

Fast runners have a common motto: Take deep breath, focus on the target, and rush it.

Separating Quotes

We use the colon to separate any quote from an independent clause that introduces the quote.

John’s deductions came out true, based on his belief in the famous Shakespearean quote: “All’s well that ends well.”

You may occasionally find in fiction that the author uses a colon to separate the dialog from the attribution.

Jean’s words resounded in her ears: “You can’t escape…”

Mary had only one thing to say: “I can’t help loving him.”

In these sentences, we omit comma, which is the usual quotation used to set off dialogs. These quotes are totally independent ones and should be given more importance than the normal dialogs. That’s why we set them off this way.

In Explanations

When you explain something with more than one reason to state, and all those reasons can be included within a single paragraph, then the best way to set apart the explanation is using a colon.

The army failed in the battle due to these major reasons: Firstly, there were not many men trained enough to fight such a war. The soldiers were mostly hungry, and their health and morale were soon down. Secondly, we fought the war from the valley, and always the side uphill has the advantage.

Syntactical-deductive and Syntactical-descriptive

When speculating the result (syntactical-deductive) of something, use colon to separate the speculation.

The outcome of the match is obvious: Brazil will win the title.

When describing something with a single sentence (syntactical-descriptive).

It was almost impossible for them to win the match: Five of their best players were injured.

Typographical Elements

In the following typographical elements, use colon.

In a title and a subtitle, set the subtitle off with a colon: Hamlet, Act IV, Scene I: Elsinore. A Room in the Castle

Time of the day: 2:20 pm

Chapters and verses of Bible or other holy texts: John 4:13

Use colon in mathematical contexts like ratios: 4:5

General Guidelines

When using colons, you can put capital letters or small case after the colon. Begin the sentence with capital in case of dialogs, explanations, predictions, etc. In case of a list, use small caps.

Use white space only after the colon, not before it. The white space is omitted in mathematical contexts, citing Bible references, and telling the time. Never, also, follow the colon immediately with a dash or a hyphen.

Do NOT Use colon In between a normal verb and its object. The example below shows the wrong use of colon, and should be avoided.

John gave me: a new pair of pincers, two packs of blade, and a shaving set.

In order to get to know more about punctuation, please visit these links:

Guide to Grammar and Writing: The Colon
University of Ottawa: Using Colon
University of Sussex Punctuation Guide: Colon Use

Books on Punctuation From Amazon:

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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