Colons in essays

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1. Colons in essays are marks of punctuation used to introduce a strong pause within a sentence. They separates two clauses which could stand alone as separate sentences but which are linked by some relationship in their meaning.

2. A colon is used to introduce a list:

The car has a number of optional extras: sun roof, tinted windows, rear seat belts, and electrically operated wing mirrors.

3. It normally precedes a long quotation or a speech:

Speaking at Caesar’s funeral, Anthony addresses the crowd: "Friends, Romans, countrymen …"

4. It is used before a clause which explains (often by way of illustration) the previous statement. It suggests the sense of ‘That is to say’ or ‘Namely’:

The school is highly regarded: academic standards are high, the staff are pleasant, and the students enjoy going there.

5. It is used to indicate a sharp contrast:

My brother likes oranges: my sister hates them.

6. Note that the colon followed by a dash (:—) is never necessary. Some people put these before a list, but the colon alone is sufficient.

7. The colon is also used between the title and the sub-title of a book:

Magical Realism: Latin-American fiction today.

8. Notice that the items which follow a list are punctuated with commas if they are a succession of individual words.

You will need four ingredients: flour, butter, milk, and sugar.

9. If the items in the list contain clauses or phrases these may be punctuated with semicolons:

You will need the following materials: some scrap paper; a pen, preferably blue or black; some envelopes; and some good, white, unlined writing paper.

10. The colon requires careful handling. If you are in any doubt, use separate sentences.

© Roy Johnson 2003


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