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Learn When to Use a Colon

What are Colons?

The colon is a punctuation mark that looks like two periods stacked one on top the other (:). There are quite a few different ways to use colons. Here we share the basics of when to use a colon.

What is the Purpose of a Colon?

A colon is used to create separation between an independent clause and a list or explanation. It is also a very useful tool for separating independent clauses from quotations.

Examples

When separating an independent clause from a list, use the colon as illustrated in the following example.

  • The historical board’s review committee includes the following officials:

the police chief

the mayor

the fire captain

the town council’s secretary

Notice that there is no period after the last word of the last item on the list.

When separating an independent clause from an explanation, use the colon as illustrated in the following example.

  • There’s not much time: get to the sale while you still can.

When using a colon in a sentence like this, a period or other punctuation is used after the last word.

When using a colon to separate a quotation from an independent clause, use the colon as illustrated in the following example.

  • Our high school acting coach liked to use his favorite quotation, which is from Shakespeare’s Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

As illustrated above, quotations introduced in such a way are often quite formal.

Additional Rules for Using the Colon Correctly

An additional frequent question to when to use a colon, is whether the independent clause that follows a colon in a sentence should be started with a capital letter. In many cases, it should be.

If that clause is a formal quote, it should be begun with a capital letter as illustrated below.

  • Einstein had this to say about art: “True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist.”

If the sentence’s introductory phrase is brief and the clause that follows the colon contains the majority of the sentence’s meaning, begin the clause with a capital letter.

  • Remember: The best gifts are meaningful ones from the heart.

If a colon precedes an explanatory statement that contains more than one sentence, begin the independent clause following the colon with a capital letter.

  • There are reasons to love birthdays: First, they’re festive. Second, they give everyone a good excuse to eat cake and ice cream.

When the function of an introductory clause is to simply introduce a concept, and the function of the clause that follows the colon is to express a specific rule, the second clause should begin with a capital letter.

  • Let’s be clear about something: Exclamation points really have no place in business correspondence.

 

When Not to Use a Colon

It’s useful to know when to use a colon, but also when to avoid colons altogether. When you’re considering whether to include a colon in a sentence, be sure that the introductory clause is capable of standing on its own, particularly if none of the conditions previously discussed in this guide are met.  Some examples of the types of sentences in which colons are often misused follow.

  • Grandma’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies included eggs, real butter, vanilla, and brown sugar.

Notice that there is no colon after the word “included.” Many writers mistakenly insert colons after this word.

  • Jim’s favorite candies were M&Ms, Life Savers, and Skittles.

There’s often a desire to place a colon after the word “were.” Learning when to use a colon, resist this urge unless you are making a formal list as illustrated at the beginning of this guide.

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