The colon is a simple yet important punctuation mark. It has many uses and features. Use them to help improve your writing!
What Is a Colon?
It’s simple. A colon is two dots stacked upon each other, like this…
You’ve seen colons many times before, I’m sure. So the question is, how do they work?
How Do I Use a Colon?
Colons serve a number of functions. Most often, colons introduce lists.
Here’s what I need you to buy from the grocery store: eggs, bacon, and cheese.
The following people passed the test: Alonzo, Juliette, Maurice, and Gemma. Everyone else failed.
ProWritingAid helps correct these mistakes: passive voice, overuse of adverbs, homonym confusion, and repeated sentence starts.
That may seem simple, but there’s a bit more to it. The sentence before the colon must always be an independent clause by itself. Therefore, the following example is incorrect.
- This Sunday I want to: sleep in, read a book, and have a picnic.
The words before the colon are a sentence fragment, not a full sentence. To rephrase properly, we would write…
- This Sunday I want to do the following: sleep in, read a book, and have a picnic.
Colons can also be used to expand upon concepts. In this context, think of the colon like a presenter.
I’ve got a surprise for you: a brand new car!
Tonight’s main course is this: tacos from Taco Bell.
I've got news: cats are roaming the streets of downtown Manhattan.
Notice that the full sentence rule still applies. Make sure to follow it.
Colons may also be used to introduce quotations. Make sure the quote is an independent clause in itself. Also, make sure the quote furthers the clause before the colon.
Luke remembered Obi-Wan’s words: “Use the force.”
This is what my mom told me: “Look both ways before crossing the street.”
I have some advice for you: “Make hay while the sun’s shining.”
Colons appear frequently in titles. Here the complete clause rule is a little more lax; we’re dealing with a title, after all. Colons in titles often set apart the main title from the subtitle, or further an idea presented in the first part. Here are some examples:
It's a favorite technique of movie makers—especially the folks over at Marvel Studios.
Don’t Confuse Colons with Semicolons!
Colons and semicolons sound and look similar. Semicolons, of course, look like this...
Semicolons join two independent clauses. They are often used in place of "and", "but", "because" or other conjunctions. For example:
- I’m sorry I didn’t respond; I was very busy!
A colon wouldn’t be appropriate in this instance because it’s not performing any of the functions listed in this article. Instead, we use the semicolon.
Remember, if you could replace the punctuation with a conjunction then it should be a semicolon.
Do I Capitalize the Word After a Colon?
There’s no absolute rule here. Whether or not you capitalize the word after a colon depends on your personal judgement and the style guide you’re using. For example, according to AP style, one capitalizes after a colon only if the word is a proper noun or the word starts a complete sentence. Chicago Style agrees with the proper noun bit, but mandates two complete sentences after the colon instead of just one. Other style guides offer other recommendations.
As with many rules like this in English, it’s all a matter of consistency. Choose a rule and stick with it!