When to Use the Colon

 

Colons: Super important for no apparent reason.

The colon is the most formal and least understood mark of punctuation. Yes, the semicolon is stuffy and pretentious, but in a snarky, Downton-Abbey-Ish way that we rather admire and wish to emulate. The colon is more like the queen; she means business.

Yet rather like the queen, we wonder exactly what business she means. The colon appears, and the sentence is silenced. But when is the colon authorized to appear? And what is the etiquette when she does?

The Colon as Herald

Essentially, the colon acts as a herald, announcing what follows. Most commonly, “what follows” is a list, but it can also be a conclusion drawn from a premise, or a specific statement derived from a general one.

Three marks of punctuation cause the most trouble for writers: commas, semicolons, and colons.

The semicolon may well be the most abused punctuation mark in all of English: writers who shun it do as much damage as those who embrace it.

The colon fares somewhat better: writers can avoid it with less risk to their prose.

(NOTE: in the last two cases, there is no grammatical distinction between the colon and the semicolon. The difference is entirely one of nuance.)

The colon is also used to introduce a grammatically complete quotation. If the quote is short, it can be printed on the same line as the body text. If it is long, it usually starts on its own line and is indented, without quotation marks.

Of this amazing season, Margaret Atwood once wrote the following: “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

e e cummings wrote of love in the spring:

sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love

(all the merry little birds are
flying in the floating in the
very spirits singing in
are winging in the blossoming)

lovers go and lovers come
awandering awondering
but any two are perfectly
alone there’s nobody else alive

(such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes)

not a tree can count his leaves
each herself by opening
but shining who by thousands mean
only one amazing thing

(secretly adoring shyly
tiny winging darting floating
merry in the blossoming
always joyful selves are singing)

sweet spring is your
time is my time is our
time for springtime is lovetime
and viva sweet love

In all of these uses, what precedes the colon should be a complete sentence. Do not insert a colon between any of the sentence’s operative elements, such as the subject and the verb, the verb and the object, the preposition and its object, etc. Treat a colon as you would a period, and only place it where a full stop would be acceptable.

Other Uses of the Colon

The colon also has three specific uses that are unrelated to sentence structure. First, it is used in formal correspondence to separate elements of the heading or the greeting. Memorandums use To: / From: / Re: / Date:. Formal letters and emails include a greeting of Dear [name]:.

Second, the colon separates bibliographic elements such as chapter and verse in biblical citations (John 3:16); title and subtitle in books, journal articles, and film (Birders: The Central Park Effect); or place of publication and publisher in lists of citations (Boca Raton: CRC Press).

Third, the colon is used as a mathematical symbol in ratios and proportions (3:1), and to separate hours, minutes, and seconds (12:14:02).

Spaces

Writers will often ask me whether they should use one or two spaces after the colon. The answer depends on whether you are using one or two spaces after the period. Whichever you choose, treat the colon the same way, and remain consistent throughout your document.

Capitalization

In general, the first word after the colon does not need to be capitalized. Some style guides require a capital letter if the language following the colon forms an independent clause or a complete sentence. If multiple independent clauses follow the colon, and they are separated by a period (i.e., not a semicolon), they should be capitalized.

One leg of the trip was particularly delightful: from St. Lucia to Martinique, we were wined and dined.

The entire trip was amazing: On St. Lucia we were taken to the Deux Pitons. On Martinique, it was Mount Pelée. And between the two islands, we were wined and dined.

I hope you find this article useful as you determine when and how to use the colon. Please share with your colleagues. And let me know if you have any feedback.

References

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford UP, 2009.

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. Washington, DC: APA, 2010.

Lunsford, Andrea A. The St. Martin’s Handbook, 5th ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2003.

Comments

  1. Debra Bills says:

    Wow, now I am challenged to think more about this. I don’t think I have ever used the colon to herald, or announce what’s coming. And if I saw it used in a report, I would likely mark it incorrect. Ok, so with this new understanding, I need to practice. If the capitalization example above is correct….
    – One leg of the trip was particularly delightful: from St. Lucia to Martinique, we were wined and dined. Does this mean the next statements are correct?
    – Day one of the survey was inadequate: between the rainy conditions and wind, we only observed three coyotes. OR
    – We anticipate a decline in next year’s budget: travel and training may be limited.

  2. Glad to hear that the blog post is expanding your thinking, Debra.

    Both of your examples are correct. No caps are required in either example, according to most style guides.

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