Here’s the lowdown on the colon:


Recently I wrote about our much-misused friend, the semicolon; now that you’ve mastered the art of using the semicolon correctly, I thought I’d spend a little time talking about another misunderstood punctuation mark: the colon.

Here are several commonly known uses: 1) following a salutation in a formal letter or email (Dear Dr. Jones:); 2) in delineating hours and minutes (4:15); 3) when separating a book’s title and subtitle (The Wild West: A Study in Contrasts); 4) when indicating proportions (The ratio of cats to dogs was 4:1.); and 5) in writing bibliographic citations (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

Perhaps less known or understood is its use in the following instance: after an independent clause (a sentence with a subject and verb that can stand alone). In this case, you would use a colon when you want to direct your reader’s attention to 1) a list, 2) a quotation, 3) an explanation or a summary, or 4) an appositive (a noun or noun phrase that sits right next to another noun and renames it or describes it in another way). Here are some examples:

  • My morning ritual includes the following: yoga, a shower, a good breakfast, and meditation. (a list)
  • Think about these wise words from Ben Franklin: “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” (a quotation)
  • Happiness is like hope: It cannot be forced. (an explanation or a summary)
  • My dog is guilty of two of the seven deadly sins: sloth and gluttony. (an appositive)

Here are the most common misuses of a colon:

  • After a verb (The best things you can do to lose weight are: control portion sizes and get plenty of exercise.)
  • After a preposition (The book consists of: nine chapters and an afterword.)
  • After for example, such as, and including (The recipe has just a handful of ingredients, including: flour, eggs, and vanilla.)

So now you know.


4 thoughts on “Here’s the lowdown on the colon:

  1. Thanks for the post! I do have a question. I was once marked down–a college paper– because I used the phrase “the following” before a colon. The prof told me in a rather nasty way that the colon MEANS “the following” and therefore I was being redundant. At the time, I didn’t even know what “redundant” meant, and there it was in huge red ink letters on my freshman paper. Have you heard that rule anywhere before? What are your thoughts?


    • Thank you for the great question! I am very happy to report that your red-inking professor was WRONG, and you were right. With the exception of the five commonly known uses of a colon, which I discuss in the second paragraph of the post, a colon always follows a complete sentence (also known as an independent clause). So, you would be correct if, for example, you were to write this: “The book is made up of the following:” It would be incorrect to write, “The book is made up of:” because this is not a complete sentence (or independent clause). I hope this helps. By the way, Rules for Writers (seventh edition) by Diana Hacker is a terrific source for all things related to grammar and punctuation. I have used it in my teaching for a long time. Best, Leslie

      Liked by 1 person

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