Colon use

The colon can confuse writers, even though it has one major use: to indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration of what precedes it. In this way, it is used to give emphasis or introduce lists or text, as well as to present dialogue and clarify composition titles.

As seen in the discussion on semicolons, this mark can also provide explanations or elaborations. Kerry Evans discusses this use of semicolons by providing the rule and an example in the same sentence:

Semicolons should introduce evidence or a reason for the preceding statement; for example, this sentence appropriately uses a semicolon.

Thus semicolons are used before the words for example when they follow a complete statement:

Our dogs has several bad habits; for example, barking at cars and jumping on furniture.

However, Evans asserts that colons should be used for “a stronger, more direct relationship” to provide emphasis, an example, or an explanation. Colons signal to readers, “Look ahead. Here it comes,” directing their attention to what follows.

In Rhetorical Grammar, Martha Kolln provides the following example and explanation:

Three committees were set up to plan the convention: program, finance, and local arrangements.

In this sentence, Kolln writes, “the message of the colon is ‘Here it comes, the list of committees I promised’” (102).

She continues her discussion of the use of the colon by examining its role as a sentence connector, joining two complete sentences as did the semicolon. She quotes the writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (journalist, essayist, memoirist) to give an example of how an “independent sentence following a colon [can] also complete or explain or illustrate the idea in the first clause”:

My mother was not prodigal: she was unnaturally frugal.

This usage of the colon appears also in fiction, as seen in this quote from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Jen and I found our father satisfactory: he played with us, read to us, and treated us with courteous detachment. (Rhetorical Grammar 102)

Kolln goes further and provides a test for writers: “if you can mentally insert ‘namely’ or ‘that is’ or ‘in fact’ . . . you should consider using a colon to connect the sentences” (103).

A colon can sometimes be used instead of a dash or vice versa, depending on your meaning and emphasis: both announce that something special is about to appear, but the dash, or more precisely the em-dash, is more dramatic.

A colon can introduce dialogue, a role often played by a comma:

The managing director said: “We’re all in this together. It is irrelevant who made the initial mistake.” (example from Mary Morel)

The colon is used to separate titles and subtitles:

The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist  (example from The Everyday Writer)

(References: Evans, “Colons vs. semicolons: What’s the difference?”; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Morel, Online Writing Training; The Everyday Writer)

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