Proper Punctuation: Colons

When to Use Colons

 
Colons are not used very commonly, but they do have their place in writing. For those who sometimes ask themselves if they should use a colon in certain situations, this article outlines the three most common uses for colons. Advice is also given on avoiding misusing colons.
 

1) Use a colon to introduce a list

 
Colons are often used to introduce a list of items. Using a colon to introduce a list is more concise and often more natural-sounding that using an alternate method, as the following examples show:

I need you to pick up several fruits for the fruit salad: bananas, oranges, apples, grapes, and a pineapple.

I need you to pick up several fruits for the fruit salad. I need you to pick up bananas, oranges, apples, grapes, and a pineapple.

 

2) Use a colon to introduce a quotation

 
When you do not want to insert a quotation in such a way that the introductory phrase blends smoothly into it, a colon is a good way to separate the introductory phrase from the quotation. A quotation may be introduced this way to indicate to the reader that it is important and deserves the reader’s full attention.

A quote from Plato summarizes the short story quite nicely: “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.”

Notice how this is somewhat more effective than inserting the quote into the middle of the sentence:

A quote from Plato, “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow,” summarizes the short story quite nicely.

 

3) Use a colon to introduce a rewording or summary of what was just written

 
Sometimes a writer will state something and then reword or explain it for emphasis. In these cases, a colon is the best punctuation mark to use.

My ex-husband cared about only two things: drinking and sports.

We can reword the sentence above so that the colon is not needed. It is still grammatical and perhaps more formal, but it loses some of its effect.

The only two things my ex-husband cared about were drinking and sports.

 

When it is incorrect to use a colon

 
If you look at all the examples that used colons throughout this article, you will notice that the words that come before the colon could stand alone as a full sentence. This is because it is incorrect to separate a verb from the objects that are linked to the verb with a colon.

The following sentences contain misplaced colons:

I need you to pick up: bananas, oranges, apples, grapes, and a pineapple.

A quote from Plato: “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow,” summarizes the short story quite nicely.

The only two things my ex-husband cared about were: drinking and sports.


 
Jake Magnum, author of the Magnum Proofreading Tips blog, is dedicated to helping writers perfect their work. In addition to giving free advice on his blog, Jake helps writers by offering very affordable proofreading services at magnumproofreading.com.

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