The Colon: Not Just For Digestion Anymore!

I’ve decided after my fun semicolon post that it might be interesting to do occasional grammar-related posts on Sundays.  (Why Sundays?  Why not?)  This week I’d like to address the colon.

(I’m pausing now to let a scene from Real Genius run through my head.  Okay, that was fun.  Now back to the grammar!)

Colons have a few basic uses and one less common use.

First , as you can see in the title of this post, the colon can be used to indicate a subtitle.  This is a fairly familiar use; we see it often on books.

Another common use is to indicate the start of a list.  This can be a simple list, like “There are four things he needed at the store: flour, sugar, milk, and eggs” or a more complex list, as in “I only ask for three things in a friend: willingness to listen, time to spend with me, and the occasional pet sitting.”  I have a brief word of caution with more complex lists: make sure that all of the items in your list are in the same form.  If one is a noun, they all should be, and if they are verbs, they need to be in the same tense.  For an easy way to make sure that your complex list is done correctly, simplify the items.  Willingness, time, and pet sitting are all nouns.  You can also pull out just the verbs and compare their tenses if you’re not certain.

Colons can also be used to indicate a quote or an example.  For example: this sentence.  As for quotes, the colon generally serves to introduce a large block quote, but you might see it occasionally in shorter ones.  Want an example?  He often used a famous saying: “I have a dream.”

So far our colon has served several roles as an indicator.  But I mentioned something earlier about a less common use.  (I’ve already used it once in this post; did you spot it?)  It is a sentence connector that can link two independent clauses.  But wait, wasn’t that how we used the semicolon?  How do we know the difference?  A semicolon brings together two sentences that are related.  The colon does more than that.  It adds emphasis to one of the two sentences.  This is often used when one sentence leads naturally into the second (sometimes because it is a cause and effect) or when the second sentence reinforces the first.  My use above?   “I have a brief word of caution with more complex lists: make sure that all of the items in your list are in the same form.”

Grammar can be fun!  Do you have any requests or suggestions for future grammar posts?

I should give credit where credit is due!  To verify the accuracy of my personal usage of grammar, I refer to A Writer’s Companion by Richard Marius, and I have double-checked that I am using colons correctly before I share their use with you.  🙂


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kate Ferguson Writes
    Nov 06, 2011 @ 11:45:26

    Thank you for this informative post on the humble, yet multi-functional colon! I would love you to write a post about the correct use of the Comma. I sometimes have difficulty knowing whether to separate clauses with dashes or commas. These are things I wish I had been taught in elementary school 🙂 (Note the alternative use of the colon as a smiley!)


  2. Nicole W
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 03:32:24

    Funny. I’m pretty sure the same scene went through my head, too.


  3. Trackback: Another Reason I Like Fantasy « Butterflies and Dragons

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