The Grammarphobia Blog

Colon treatment, part 2

Q: Thank you for the explanation on when NOT to use a colon. Can you also share some examples on how to use one?

A: The correct usage of the colon is pretty straightforward.

As Pat writes in Woe Is I, the colon is used to present something: a statement, a series of things, a quotation, or instructions. (Note that we just used one in that sentence.)

Here are a couple of bulleted paragraphs from the book: 

• Use a colon instead of a comma, if you wish, to introduce a quotation. I said to him: “Harry, please pick up a bottle of wine on your way over. But don’t be obsessive about it.” Many people prefer to introduce a longer quotation with a colon instead of a comma.

• Use a colon to introduce a list, if what comes before the colon could be a small sentence in itself (it has both a subject and a verb). Harry brought three wines: a Bordeaux, a Beaujolais, and a Burgundy.

 As for capitalization after a colon, Pat adds this note in Woe Is I:

“If what comes after the colon is a complete sentence, you may start it with a capital or a lowercase letter. I use a capital when I want to be more emphatic: My advice was this: Bring only one next time. (This is a matter of taste, and opinions differ. Whatever your choice, be consistent.)”

A colon is sometimes used to present a piece of information in an emphatic way. If you prefer, a dash can do the same thing.

As Pat explains elsewhere in the book, “A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information. It was what Tina dreaded most—fallen arches.”

Colons are also used in telling the time, as in “Meet me at 3:45.” And as we’ve written in our blog, colons are used in Biblical citations.

In case you’re  wondering about how to use a colon with quotation marks, we’ve written about that on our blog too.

As we note, in the American system, a colon goes outside the closing quotation marks. Here’s an example from Woe Is I:

There are two reasons she hates the nickname “Honey”: It’s sticky and it’s sweet.

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