6) The colon

The colon

The colon is used as a mark of anticipation to show that various forms such as lists, words to be emphasised, analogous statements and quotes are about to follow. It both introduces these various aspects to us, and separates them from the previous construction. Let’s look at the most common places we use colons:

1) Introduce a list, or series

We often use colons to introduce a list, or series. For example:

She asked me to get four things from the supermarket: pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

If you try to imagine other ways of writing this, they are generally more awkward and less efficient. Despite this, we don’t use colons for lists in every situation. The main example to understand is that we don’t usually put a colon before the object of a verb or preposition, especially if there would not ordinarily be punctuation if the object wasn’t a list. Let’s compare an example with a colon before the object of a verb, and one without:

She demanded: pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee. (incorrect)

She demanded pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

In both examples we have the verb ‘demanded’ + the object of the verb ‘pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.’ The second answer, where we have no mark after the verb ‘demanded’, is generally considered the correct way, probably because the first really interrupts the flow of the sentence.

A similar example comparing a colon before the object of a preposition, and one without, is:

She asked for: pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee. (incorrect)

She asked for pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

In both examples we have the preposition ‘for’ + the object of the preposition ‘pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.’ Again, the second – where we have no mark after the preposition ‘for’ – is generally considered right.

As well as checking for the object of verbs and prepositions, we can also avoid this problem by checking that the words before the colon can stand alone as a complete thought – i.e., they are an independent clause. So, in the sentence:

She asked me to get four things from the supermarket: pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.’

‘She asked me to get four things from the supermarket’ can stand alone as a complete thought. However, in the sentence:

She asked for: pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

‘She asked for’ cannot stand alone as a complete sentence. Therefore we usually drop the colon and write:

She asked for pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

We also saw earlier that we often use a semi-colon after conjunctive adverbs like ‘namely’ and prepositional phrases of equivalent function like ‘for example’. We don’t usually use colons for this same purpose. As an example, we don’t generally write:

She asked for a number of things: namely, pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

Instead, it would be more common to use a semi-colon, as in:

She asked for a number of things; namely, pizza, olives, ice cream and coffee.

Finally, we can use a colon just to introduce a single thing, such as:

She asked me to get one thing: pizza.

2) To emphasise the word, phrase or clause which follows the colon

We can also use the colon to emphasise the word, phrase or clause which follows the colon.

An example of the colon being used to emphasise a word is:

There is only one word to describe John Smith: arrogant.

Note how this gives extra emphasis to the word ‘arrogant’ than simply saying:

John Smith is arrogant.

An example of a colon being used to emphasise a phrase is:

There is only one thing left to do now: dance all night.

An example of a colon being used to emphasise a clause is:

There is one thing I have figured out on this holiday: my Spanish is worse than I had fantasised.

Some sources say to use a capital letter for ‘my’ in the above sentence because it is introducing an independent clause, while others say it is unnecessary. Some sources also say to only use a capital letter when introducing more than one independent clause, as in:

There are two things I have figured out on this holiday: My Spanish is worse than I had fantasised, and my six-pack is really a beer belly.

This seems to be a matter of choice. If you are writing something formal, check the style guide for this one because it will probably vary.

It is important to note that the colon should introduce something that is analogous to the original clause before it. In other words, the word, phrase or clause being emphasized must not introduce a completely new idea. For example, the following is a sentence which uses the colon in a way largely considered incorrect because it introduces a completely new idea:

I am going to meet Jane at the cinema: I hope she wants to sit at the back.

Note how ‘I hope she wants to sit at the back’ is a completely new idea. A semi-colon would probably be better in this instance, as in:

I am going to meet Jane at the cinema; I hope she wants to sit at the back.

There are also instances which could be said to sit on the borderline between semi-colon and colon. For example:

The party was a hit: everyone said they loved it.

These two are quite analogous to each other, meaning a colon could be the mark to use. However, ‘everyone said they loved it’ could be said to be introducing a new idea, so some might say to use a semi-colon:

The party was a hit; everyone said they loved it.

What do you think?

3) To introduce a quote

There doesn’t seem to be a strict rule out there about whether to use a comma or a colon to introduce a quote. Some say that long and formal quotes should use colons, while the rest should use commas. For example:

Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.’

That’s all for colons; let’s look at the dash next.

NEXT: 7) The dash

Posted in Punctuation