The Colon (and it’s not just for time)

The colon is probably the punctuation mark we see the most but use the least. At least that’s my guess. We see the colon used every time we look at or read about time: 3:30. An exciting time for teenagers everywhere. 11:11: An interesting time for those who are superstitious. 18:15. Confusing for those of us who aren’t familiar with the 24-hour clock. Another place we see the colon is at the end of a greeting in a formal letter (Dear Sir:). But all of this to say, there’s more that the colon can offer us! Although at times the colon looks like it’s doing work that is similar to the semicolon, the colon does work that is specific and different. Read more to find out!

Lists

The colon is great with introducing a list. For example, Please pack all of the necessary items: candy, tea, books, and blankets. But if I was to write, Make sure to bring candy, tea, books, and blankets, the colon isn’t needed because the list becomes part of the sentence. The colon’s job is to introduce a list of items that aren’t imbedded into the sentence (so basically you have a complete sentence, then the list after). Reading requires three things: good lighting, a comfy seat, and a mug of tea. Not, To read you should have: good lighting, a comfy seat, and a mug of tea. The colon in that last example doesn’t make sense because the sentence isn’t completed before the list begins. So, a complete sentence means a colon can be used to introduce the list.

But what happens if you want your list to be an actual list? The colon can help with that, too! I’ll give you an example here.

Here are the things required for a great weekend away:

  • Great weather,
  • Great company,
  • Excellent food.

Notice the capitalization and punctuation in that list? It all started with a complete sentence to introduce the list. Because it’s a small list, punctuation within the list and at the end of the list helps the reader. If it’s a longer list, or a multiple choice test, sometimes the punctuation can be too much for a reader.

Connecting sentences

When you want to add an explanation or summarize the previous sentence (similar to a list, if you will), the colon can help with that! The colon is able to connect two sentences when you want to give your reader a little bit more information, which is slightly different than a semicolon (which connects sentences that are linked in ideas). What about punctuation? You can choose (depending on which style guide you are using). Both a capital after the first sentence or a lower case are correct. Using the colon to connect sentences adds variety for your reader, and allows you to add that extra information that is sort of like a list.

  • The school principal had one message: Leave your phones at home. (correct)
  • The school principal had one message: leave your phones at home. (correct)

Introducing quotations

One of the best ways to use the colon in an efficient and thoughtful way is when you are introducing quotations into your own writing. Colons are very helpful when writing formal or academic papers because they introduce the quotations in a way that shows the reader that the information that follows is someone else’s words. A semicolon can’t do that kind of work.

  • Bon Jovi said it best: “I ain’t gonna be just a face in the crowd/ You’re gonna hear my voice.”
  • Catherine O’Hara has excellent advice for all artists: “Even before you’ve earned it, treat yourself and your career with the level of respect that you hope to one day deserve.”
All kinds of colors, but the same great shape!

See, they’re not just for time. Colons are a great way to add clarity to your writing, and to add variety for your readers. Although using a colon can seem intimidating at first, once you understand it’s role and purpose for the reader, it becomes easier to use it. Here is my parting advice for using colons: Experiment, play, and have fun.