Colons can be confusing, that’s true, but their function is actually quite straightforward: they introduce related information. Learning how to use colons correctly, along with other punctuation rules, can give your writing more clarity.
Without knowing how to effectively use colons, a writer can end up just putting colons everywhere, nowhere at all, or interchanging the colon with a semicolon or comma. To avoid precisely that, let’s take a look at these 5 rules of colon usage.
There are five key rules for colon usage that should always be followed:
1. Use a colon after a sentence or independent clause when introducing an item or list of items. A colon should never come before a list unless it is following a sentence.
Example: "There are three things every dog needs: food, water, and healthcare."
2. Use a colon after a complete sentence that is following by a bulleted or numbered list.
Example: The English language is spectacular. There are 14 different types of punctuation marks:
Capitalization and ending punctuation are optional for single words or short phrases in bullet points or numbered lists.
3. Use colons between two sentences only if the second sentence emphasizes or illustrates the first.
Example: Thinking back, our trip to Ireland was the best: we saw some of the most beautiful terrain this earth has to offer.
Traditionally, you had to capitalize the first word after a colon when the colon introduced a complete sentence, but that has become a style choice more than a rule.
4. Use a colon to introduce extended quotations. You should not use quotation marks and you should single space the quotation and indent from the left margin.
Example: Dyer’s philosophy can be summed up in his belief that our thoughts manifest our reality:
Act as if what you intend to manifest in life is already a reality. Eliminate thoughts of conditions, limitations, or the possibility of it not manifesting. If left undisturbed in your mind and in the mind of intention simultaneously, it will germinate in the physical world.
5. Use a colon following a greeting (also known as a salutation) in a formal or business letter. It does not matter if you are using the person’s first name, both first and last name, or their title, you should always use a colon if the letter is formal. If the letter is personal, then either a colon or comma is appropriate.
Example: To Whom It May Concern:
Example: Dear Mr. Wilson:
Example: Dear Jonathan Wilson:
See, we told you the grammar rules for using a colon are pretty straightforward. Just remember that a colon isn’t a comma, nor is it interchangeable for one. To solidify this in your mind, take a look at 8 Times Commas Were Important. It’ll help bring it all home for you.