colons

“The colon calls attention to what follows.”

~Edgar Schuster

I love the anticipation of a colon. Colons are a mark you can definitely hear out loud, in that space where you’re waiting for someone to elaborate. To me it’s cool to be able to hear an inaudible punctuation mark.

Professional Examples

between independent clauses

  • If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Remember: no one is reading your first drafts.

~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

  • Only the eerie green glow that Intrepid left in its wake gave him comfort: The phosphorescent phytoplankton whipped up by the boat’s hull reminded him he was sailing across a living thing.

~from ESPN Magazine‘s “Do Hard Things”

  • He tries again: “Seventy-two!”
  • Users with less experience were more accurate in predicting the learning curves, though their guess, too, fell short: they predicted twenty minutes.
  • In explaining any human shortcoming, the first tool I reach for is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

~from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

  • I read a wonderful passage in an interview with Carolyn Chute, the author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, who was discussing rewriting: “I feel like a lot of time my writing is like having twenty boxes of Christmas decorations. But no tree. You’re going, Where do I put this? Then they go, Okay, you can have a tree, but we’ll blindfold you and you gotta cut it down with a spoon.”
  • ~from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

before a word, phrase, or list

  • He had grown accustomed to his boat’s noises: creaking lines, water lapping against the hull, the whirring of the small windmill, the flapping of the American flag mounted on the stern.

~from ESPN Magazine‘s “Do Hard Things”

  • The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat.

~from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

  • Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

~from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style

  • (Answer: no.)

~from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

  • Twelve “shame categories” have emerged from my research:
    • Appearance and body image
    • Money and work
    • Motherhood/fatherhood
    • Family
    • Parenting
    • Mental and physical health
    • Addiction
    • Sex
    • Aging
    • Religion
    • Surviving trauma
    • Being stereotyped or labeled

~from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly

How Colons Work

Anticipatory independent clause: explanation.

The colon comes at the end of an independent clause — a spot where you could put a period, except that what’s in the clause has left something unanswered. Stick the colon on and then give us the answer, whether that answer is a single word, a phrase, a list, a quote, or another full independent clause.

When the explanation is another full independent clause, you get to choose whether or not to start the explanation with a capital letter. Notice in Steven Pinker’s examples above that sometimes he chose to and sometimes not, likely depending on how much he wanted the explanation to stand on its own. Either one works:

Anticipatory independent clause: Explanatory independent clause.

Anticipatory independent clause: explanatory independent clause.

Also notice that parts of the independent clause before the colon can be implied. In the example above that starts with “Remember,” the implied clause is “[You should] remember.” The example that starts with “Answer” implies “[This is the] answer.” (Often when rules are “broken” in English it’s really just that something’s been implied rather than directly stated.)

Self Check

When you stick a colon in a sentence, cover up everything that comes after the colon and see if you still have a complete sentence. You should be able to stick a period where the colon is, otherwise the sentence doesn’t work.

Confusion Warning

If you have trouble confusing a semicolon and a colon, think of it this way:

  • “Semi” suggests “half” and a sort of equality; it looks like it’s half comma, half colon, and it splits a sentence into two fairly equal halves with an independent clause on each side.
  • A colon, however, does what the colon in your body does: it pushes the emphasis toward the end! Gross, yeah, but I bet you won’t forget the difference.

If your sentence has full independent clauses on each side and is comparing the sides in some way, use a semicolon. If your sentence has a full independent clause that anticipates some answer to be given at the end, use a colon.

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4 Comments

  1. I have a question about using a colon to set off a bullet list. I have a bullet list that fails the independent clause test.
    We request your thoughtfulness to:
    * clear the table, if used;
    * switch off the lights; and
    * place chairs properly.

    This is evidently not role the colon was originally meant to fill, however, does using it in this setting somehow obviate the need for the independent clause rule? I have found examples of bullet lists using a colon that begin with, “I would advise visitors to avoid:”, which has an infinitive at the end, not just a participle, but sounds like an independent clause so long as you don’t know the context, as the visitors have not yet been advised of anything that they might need to avoid. Therefore this clause actually begs a question: avoid what?

    Reply

    1. Sorry, found the answer.

      I have to remove the colon if I want to keep the verb form. Otherwise, re-phrase the lead-in to “We request your thoughtfulness to do the following:”

      P.s. I did find a reference that said that if the list is a ‘vertical list’, the colon can still be used. However, as the example given did not have the endorsement of one of CMOS, APA, etc., I did not feel confident in using it that way personally.

      Reply

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