Using the Colon

"Some think it a prettier or more impressive stop than the semicolon, and use it instead of that; some like variety, and use the two indifferently, or resort to one when they are tired of the other. As the abandonment of periodic arrangement really makes the colon useless, it would be well . . .  if ordinary writers would give it up altogether except in the special uses. . . ."

H. W. Fowlero

As Fowler states, the colon has very special uses. It should not be used indiscriminately, and when it is used, writers should be able to give one of the following four reasons:

1. Use a colon to introduce lists, appositives, and direct quotations that follow independent clauses.

Ex. A: Barbara Havings gave three reasons why she was not going: it was stormy, she didn't like loud music, and she preferred the company of her cats to us.

Ex. B: I finally found the perfect food: chocolate!

Ex. C: When Daryl finally appeared, he gave the definitive answer to the question of where the lost treasure had been found: "Nowhere, it never existed."

Explanation: The writer uses a colon in the above sentence since the direct quotation to emphasize the quotation's emotional impact.

Caution: Do not use a colon to precede a list unless the list is preceded by an independent clause. Particularly be careful not to use a colon after include or an form of include. Below are examples of incorrect use of a colon:

Ex. A:

Incorrect: I bought the toys for: Janet, my second cousin; Elaine, my first cousin; George, my cat; and Elinor, my favorite author.

Correct: I bought the toys for Janet, my second cousin; Elaine, my first cousin; George, my cat; and Elinor, my favorite author.

Ex. A:

Incorrect: There were several important clauses in the new law, including: 1)the clause to forbid parking near hospitals during national emergencies, 2) the clause to mandate that all doctors and nurses be on 24-hour call, and 3) the clause that made blood donations mandatory.

Correct: There were several important clauses in the new law, including 1)the clause to forbid parking near hospitals during national emergencies, 2) the clause to mandate that all doctors and nurses be on 24-hour call, and 3) the clause that made blood donations mandatory.

 

2. Use a colon when a second, closely related independent clause clarifies or elaborates on the first one.

Ex. A:  The scenario for the crime was an old one: the butler killed the master in the library with a candlestick.

Ex. B: Tressa became the woman we though she would become: she won an Olympic gold medal and found a cure for cancer.

 

3. Use a colon in titles, business letters, citation formats, and to indicate times and ratios.

Ex. A, book title with two parts: Wanda read Beneath the Oceans: A Story of Love and Fish before it even hit the best-seller list.

Ex. B, business letter salutation: Dear Dr. Alan Hanson:

(See Business letter format)

Ex. C, separate city and publisher in citation: Waters, Leo. Dove. New York: Caustic P, 1999.

Ex. D, time: We will arrive at 7:00 pm and leave at 7:12.

Ex. E, ratios: The salt and water are mixed at a 6:1 ratio to insure the egg will float.

Caution: Space once between a colon and the next word, when the colon is used between words. Do not space between numerals and a colon when a colon is used to mark time or ratios.

 

4. Use a colon before long direct quotations that are introduced by an independent clause.

Ex. A: The conditions on the prairie differed for men and women, as Glenda Riley notes:

Women's shared responsibilities, life styles, and sensibilities constituted a female frontier, that is, a comparable set of orientations and responses that in most ways transcended the region of the frontier in which they settled, the occupations of the men of their families, and the historical period in which they lived. ((201)

Riley, Glenda. The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1988.

Ex. B: See sample research paper.

oFowler, Henry Watson. The King’s English. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908. Bartleby.com, 1999. 22 Oct. 2004 <www.bartleby.com/116/403.html>.

 

Return to Grammar and Punctuation or OWL.