When Should I Use a Colon?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

If you have ever wondered when you should use a colon, keep reading.

The colon is a punctuation mark used to introduce a list, emphasize an idea, or separate items in time or place. The semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses, and it can sometimes be used in items of a series.

This post explains when to use a colon. If you want information about semicolons, consult these pages:

When is a Colon Used?

A colon is conventionally used in situations like these:

  • to separate hours and minutes (8:40)
  • In proportions (the ratio of flour to sugar is 3:1)
  • Subtitles (The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family)
  • Bibliographies (Boston: St. Martin’s Press or Organic Quarterly 4:58–59)
  • Memos and Correspondence (Dear Sir: or Attention: Accounts Payable)

A colon is also used to create lists after complete sentences.

  • They want to do three things when playing a game: win, win, and win.
  • My daily exercise routine includes the following movements: getting up, pouring coffee, sitting down, scrolling through my phone, and getting up again to pour more coffee.

Several less frequent uses of colons include the following:

  • to emphasize or explain. Faith is like love: it cannot be forced.
  • to add information. Don’t throw out your copiers yet: 60% of offices still print memos and agendas.

Tip: When more than one sentence comes after the colon, capitalize them.

He brought up three points: To begin with, the corporation was losing over a million dollars every month. Second, the stock price was at an all-time low. Third, no banks were willing to lend the company any more funds.

Compare that to this sentence.

Faith is like love: it cannot be forced.

The Colon Mistake to Avoid.

A common mistake writers make is they remember the first part—before a list—but forget the second part—after an independent clause.

A colon rarely comes directly after a verb.

Wrong: Some of my favorite fruits include: bananas, grapes, and oranges.

To fix this mistake, complete the thought, and then present the list.

Correct: Some of my favorite fruits include the following ones: bananas, grapes, and oranges.

Avoid placing a colon directly after “including,” “for example,” or “such as.”

Wrong: A grammar handbook explains many punctuation rules, for example: commas, semicolons, and periods.

An easy fix is to move the transition to the end of a list.

Correct: A grammar handbook explains many punctuation rules: commas, semicolons, and periods, for example.

Can I Use a Dash Instead?

You might want to consider using a dash instead in the following situations:

You want your writing to be informal. A colon is used more often in formal writing. Consider the difference between these two salutations:

  • Dear Sir,
  • Dear Sir:

However, if you want to be dramatic, then use a dash. Compare these two sentences:

  • They want to do three things when playing a game: win, win, and win.
  • They want to do three things when playing a game–win, win, and win.

I want to add an exclamation mark after the second sentence:

  • They want to do three things when playing a game–win, win, and win!

If you have additional questions, post them in the comments below. Curious who makes all these rules? Then check out Who Makes Grammar Rules.

Tip your blogger with a like and a share: subscribe to receive more awesome posts like these!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: