Today, I’d like to guide you through the usage of colons. Now, let’s define what colons are.
What is a colon?
A colon is a punctuation mark used to precede (come before) a list of items or a quotation. It can also be used to place emphasis or joining specifically related sentences. As always, I will now break down each listed method below!
Introducing a List
Perhaps the most frequent and well-known use of the colon is introducing lists. A colon acts as an arrow pointing to a list in a sentence. The usage, while seemingly confusing, is actually fairly straightforward. Simply use a colon when you want to place emphasis of a list/list items. This can prove to be useful when writing a thesis statement as it can highlight the list of points you will talk about in your essay.
✓ “There are three types of classifications of animal eating habits: herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore.”
✓ “We have two options here: stay and fight, or run like the wind.” (source)
However, you must obey this rule when using the colon as an introduction to a list: Never place a colon after a verb (action/linking word) or after a preposition. (here’s a link to a list of prepositions)
✗ “The three types of animal eating classification are: herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore.”
✓ “The three types of animal eating classification are herbivore, omnivore, and carnivore.”
✗ “When I have the money, I want to travel to: the Great Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, and the Mayan ruins of Machu Picchu.”
✓ “When I have the money, I want to travel to the Great Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, and the Mayan ruins of Machu Picchu.”
Did you know that instead of using a comma before a quotation in the middle of a sentence, you can use a colon? Colons are often used if the quote has more than one sentence. Journalism often uses colons to introduce most any quote that sits at the end of a sentence.
✓ “She ended her speech with the words of Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
✓ “The teacher, then, spoke using the wisdom of H. G. Wells: “Affliction comes to us, not to makes us sad but sober; not to makes us sorry but wise.”
You know that handy double dash (aka the em dash)? A colon can be used in the same way, adding emphasis to a word or phrase. This usage is much less common, but is correct nonetheless. Personally, I love the way dashes set words apart. However, if you need a more low-key way or direct way of emphasizing something, try a colon!
✓ “We knew who would win the game: the home team.”
✓ “After three weeks of deliberation, the jury finally reached a verdict: guilty.”
✓ “Five continents, three dozen countries, over a hundred cities: this was the trip of a lifetime.”
Joining Two Sentences
No, this is not like a semicolon. In order to use a colon to combine two sentences, the second sentence explain, illustrate, paraphrase, or expand on the first sentence.
Explain: “A platypus isn’t a reptile: it is a mammal.”
Paraphrase: “The town we visited reminded me of our most recent vacation: both were in the mountains.”
Expand: “Remember the old saying: Be careful what you wish for.”
Illustrate: “My mother wondered why I hadn’t answered her texts; I hadn’t received them.”
Unlike the semicolon, it greatly depends on the style whether or not you capitalize the first word of the second sentence. In fiction, use your judgement and stick with one or the other. Don’t use both at once.
Phew! Now that that hard work is out of the way, Some additional non-fiction uses include:
• After an introductory statement in a letter (Dear John:)
• Time (1:30 p.m.)
• Ratios (1:3)
• Biblical References (John 3:16)
• Volumes (Read Boring Texbook 3:48-59 -> Read Boring Textbook volume 3, pages 48-59)
• PS: Don’t forget sunscreen
• Attention: Accounts Payable (boring adult stuff)
– A colon can introduce lists
– Don’t use a colon after a verb or preposition
– Can be used to set off a quotation at the end of a sentence instead of a comma
– Can be used like a dash to emphasize a word or phrase
– Can be used to join two sentences
– If used to join two sentences, the second sentence must explain, illustrate, paraphrase, or expand on the first sentence
Which sentence is incorrect and how would you correct it? Comment your answer below.
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