When you start focusing on the minute details of your writing, punctuation, as well as other grammatical errors, becomes a top priority. After your story itself is perfected, you now want the overall product to come properly across to readers. Punctuation, no matter how slight, can significantly alter the meaning or clarity of a sentence; as a result, punctuation is an important portion of writing to master. While in the editing process, some punctuation can throw a curveball at you. Colons (:) in particular tend to trip people up. A colon sign is commonly seen today as the eyes in a smiley face emoji, but they serve a much different purpose in the English language. To ensure your manuscript uses colons correctly, here are the basic functions of colons and the biggest missteps to avoid.
Colons and Lists
One of the most common places you will see and use colons pertains to lists.
Example – I went to the store and bought four items: milk, cheese, eggs and bacon.
In this example, the colon is used to separate a list of items and a complete, independent sentence that can stand by itself. The first portion of the sentence, “I went to the store and bought four items,” is the independent sentence. The second portion, “milk, cheese, eggs, and bacon,” is the list of items. The colon is used to indicate that the four items mentioned in the initial sentence are about to be listed. As the first portion of the sentence is a sentence that can stand by itself, the colon is properly used.
Additional Examples –
When I go to the gym, I will complete the following exercises: pushups, situps, and running five miles.
The academic course comprises three main components: literature, writing, and research.
She participated in several activities today: hiking, biking, running, swimming, and cliff diving.
Colons and Elaborations
Another typical reason a colon appears on a page is to lead up to or offer additional explanation to a thought.
Example – She stayed behind for one reason: to distract the bad guys.
In this above example, the colon leads up to an additional explanation. The first portion of the sentence, “She stayed behind for one reason,” is an independent sentence that can stand by itself. However, as the secondary portion, “to distract the bad guys,” explains what the one reason she stayed behind was, a colon is used to connect the two parts. The colon indicates that further explanation is being given.
Additional Examples –
He craved one flavor: chocolate.
All of the children ran out of the room: a giant spider crawled around the wall.
Colons and Quotations
The third major way to implement colons in your writing is through quotations.
Example – Abraham Lincoln once said the following: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
As seen in this example, the colon comes at the end of a clause that leads up to a quotation. After being introduced, it launches straight into the quotation itself. This is another simple function of colons, but remember that colons should only be used in this situation when the sentence preceding it is an independent sentence.
Additional Examples –
One of my favorite quotes is by Henry S. Haskins: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
Four words combined together by Martin Luther King, Jr. have inspired the nation: “I have a dream…”
Colons are commonly misused in writing in two major ways.
First, many writers will use a colon when the preceding sentence is not a complete, independent sentence, meaning it cannot stand by itself. For example: “The cat proclaimed: ‘Meow!’” In this situation, the phrase “The cat proclaimed” cannot stand by itself as a complete sentence. As such, it cannot be used with a colon. To fulfill grammatical requirements, a colon must include a preceding complete sentence, while the information following the colon may be either incomplete or complete. So, when using a colon, remember to double check that the sentence prior to the colon can stand by itself. A simple way to fix situations like the example above is to add the phrase “the following” to the end of the first portion, as it typically will make the sentence complete. With this addition, the example sentence would then become, “The cat proclaimed the following: ‘Meow!’.” This sentence now uses the colon properly.
Second, another common issue is using both a colon and phrases like “such as” and “including.” A colon serves the same function as phrases like “such as” and “including” because a colon informs the reader that further clarification will follow. Phrases like “such as” and “including” then become redundant. For example, avoid a sentence like this: “I am excited to try out new subjects, such as: pottery, art history, and interior design.” In a situation like this, either the “such as” or the colon can be removed for the sentence to function properly, but both cannot remain in the same sentence. Watch out for redundancies like this when it comes to using colons in your writing.
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Mackenzie Hendricks graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho with a Bachelor in English. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor.
She enjoys reading all types of genres, but her favorites are fantasy and historical fiction. In addition to writing nonfiction and scholarly articles, she also dabbles in creative writing in her spare time.