Colons – how to use them

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Colons – definition

colons Colons are used to introduce strong pauses within sentences.

redbtn The colon is the longest pause short of a full stop.


redbtn Colons are used to introduce lists:

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

redbtn The colon separates two clauses which could stand alone as separate sentences, but which are linked by some relationship in meaning:

My brother likes oranges: my sister hates them.

redbtn The colon is also used before a long quotation or a speech:

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

redbtn It is also used before a clause which explains the previous statement:

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


redbtn The colon can be used to provide emphasis, or to create dramatic effect:

There can be only one reason for this problem: his total incompetence.

redbtn It is also used at the end of a statement which is followed by an illustration:

The vase contains beautiful flowers: roses, tulips, and daffodils.

redbtn NB! The colon followed by a dash (: —) is never necessary. The colon alone is sufficient, even before a list.

redbtn 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.

redbtn 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.

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

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

Magical Realism: Latin-American fiction today.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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5 Responses to “Colons – how to use them”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clever Streak, Ivan Lutrov. Ivan Lutrov said: Are you confused about when to use colons in your punctuation? This article will help. RT @cleverstreak […]

  2. lucy mellows says:

    Does this need a colon and where? It took me an hour to place my head through the dark black door. even then i could just see the old man laying there flat upon his brown wooden bed.

  3. mantex says:

    Colons are used when there is an element of contrast or before a list. The expression ‘even then’in this example suggests a continuity of thought. A semicolon would be more appropriate – immediately after ‘door’.

  4. i am 14 and i am sucky at colons and this helped me alot.

  5. Roy Johnson says:

    Thank you for that Vote of Thanks Joey. Lots of people find colons difficult, and that’s why the guidance notes were written – to help.

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