Writing Tips: How To Use Colons
Colons are the most badly named punctuation marks in existence. If you don't believe me, do an image search. On the other hand, take my advice and don't do it; I'm pretty sure I've been scarred for life. (I'm only half-kidding!)
I was curious to find out how the colon got such an unfortunate name. Here's the etymology in case you're interested: 1540s, from L. colon "part of a poem," from Gk. kolon (with a long initial -o- ) "part of a verse," lit. "limb," from PIE base *(s)kel- "to bend, crooked" (see scalene). Meaning evolved from "independent clause" to punctuation mark that sets it off.
Poor, unfunny colon. *Sigh* Nobody in the world thinks you can be funny but me. Maybe I can convince others of your true worth! Maybe you have some fun and laughter hidden in that vacant stare!
I admit I don't use colons often, but when the time comes they're indispensable. As punctuation marks go they're not the most popular, or the coolest, but they have hidden talents that every writer should learn to harness. Let's go!
Colons inform the reader that what is to come either further explains, proves, or lists what was mentioned previously. It's a little difficult at first, but don't worry; you'll get it.
Colons should only be used after a full sentence that ends in a noun (person, place, or thing). There is no space after the noun, and one space after the colon. A good indication of whether you should use a colon is to replace it with the word namely.
- Learning grammar takes three things, namely, time, patience, and repetition.
- There was only one thing Kate could think of, namely, helping people improve their writing.
- Learning grammar takes three things: time, patience, and repetition.
- There was only one thing Kate could think of: helping people improve their writing.
- Learning grammar takes: Time, patience, and insanity.
- Kate seemed focused on: Making colons moderately interesting.
There's some argument about capitalizing the word following a colon. I'll spare you the petty details as it's a pretty boring debate and I have an easy solution. Only capitalize the word following a colon if it's a proper noun (name of a person, place, or thing). This will satisfy nearly all grammarians, including yours truly!
- Right now I have two responsibilities: finish this hub and fly South for the winter.
- I know what you're thinking: Kate must dream about grammar at night.
- I need to buy some things at the store: Orange juice, toothpaste, and I can't remember what else.
- You're doing well: You're starting to understand this colon thing, aren't you?
As with semicolons, colons go outside of parentheses and quotation marks.
- "This is an ugly grammar rule": colons outside of quotation marks look dumb.
- (Kate can't think of many examples): it's not often you need to use a colon at the end of parentheses or a quote.
Logical Consequence ("Syntactical Deductive")
Colons can introduce the logical consequence of the sentence that came before it.
- Kate didn't want to go on a walk: it was snowing outside.
- Colons are awesome: they're super useful!
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Description ("Syntactical Descriptive")
Colons can also introduce a description of like things in a grouping. This includes the keeping of time and reference to particular passages in popular texts like epic poetry, works of Shakespeare, or religious texts.
- Kate has three rules: work hard, do your best, and make fun of yourself whenever possible.
- Learning about colons is fun: they're useful, minimalistic, and don't overstay their welcome.
- The really bad Hollywood remake of a classic movie starts at 4:30 pm.
- Matthew 5:5-14 is a pretty good read, especially if you need an excuse for being meek.
Colons are also used to introduce speech.
- The readers proclaimed the benefits of colons: their use is endless.
- Remember this, young Skywalker: "I am your father!"