Using Colons

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The Quick Answer
The colon has four uses:

(1) To extend a sentence in order to identify something previously mentioned in the sentence.
  • I demand one personal trait: discipline.
  • (The colon extends the sentence and identifies "personal trait.")
(2) After an introduction.
  • I have seen the following: ants, a cockroach, and a rat.
(3) In references, times, and titles.
  • Read Genesis 1:1 before 07:30.
(4) To introduce a quotation.
  • He said: "Curiosity killed the cat, but for a while I was a suspect."

More about Using Colons

Colons (:) are quite versatile. It is worth learning how to use them — especially how colons allow you to expand on an idea previously mentioned in the sentence. (If you can master this idea, you'll have a useful tool in your writing toolkit.)

(1) Using Colons to Extend a Sentence

using colons to expand a sentence

Think of a colon (:) as the language version of an equals sign (=) in mathematics. The information on the left of the colon equals the information on the right.

Usually, the information on the right is an expansion of whatever is mentioned on the left. For example:
  • He blamed his divorce on one thing: beer.
  • (one thing = beer)
  • There are two reasons why I don't believe the alibi: there is no visa in his passport, and he is petrified of flying.
  • (two reasons = the visa idea and the flying idea)
Sometimes, the ideas either side of the "equals sign" are a little harder to marry up. For example:
  • I have made an important discovery: alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
  • (discovery = the alcohol idea)
A Colon Is Like an Equals Sign

When using a colon to extend a sentence to expand on something previously mentioned in the sentence, think of a colon as an equals sign. For example:
  • I need one personal trait: discipline.
  • (personal trait = discipline)
  • I would like to change just one aspect of your draft: the words.
  • (one aspect = the words)

You cannot introduce a new idea with a colon. For example:
  • I need one personal trait: I have others but not the one I need.
  • (personal trait = discipline)
  • I would like to change just one aspect of your draft: then you can publish it.
  • (one aspect = the words)

(2) Using Colons after Introductions

using colons for introductions

A colon can be used after an introduction. The wording to the left of the colon will introduce whatever follows on the right. For example:
  • The Victorian printing set is missing the following characters: Q, R, K, and the question mark.
  • He voted for the following films:

    (1) Jaws
    (2) The Princess Bride
    (3) Shawshank Redemption
Note: You cannot use a semicolon (;) for this purpose.

Read more about colons for introductions
Read more about using bullet points

(3) Using Colons in References and Times

using colons in references

Colons can be used to divide the parts of references, titles, and times. For example:
  • I am currently reading "How To Get Your Own Way: Who's Manipulating You?".
  • (Here, the colon is used to separate the main title from the subtitle.)
  • Genesis 1:1 starts "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
  • (Colon used as a separator in a Bible reference)
  • 07:30 - Breakfast
    08:30 - Meet at the lake and prepare the kayaks
    09:00 - Select teams
  • (Colons used as a separator in times.)
Read more about colons in references, times and titles

(4) Using Colons with Quotation Marks

using colons with quotations

Colons can be used to introduce quotations. For example:
  • It's hard to disagree with Frank Zappa, who said: "Art is making something out of nothing and selling it."
In this example, the quotation is introduced with a colon. However, it could have been introduced with a comma or with nothing. There is a useful guideline out there which states that if your quotation is longer than six words (and you're not worried about controlling the flow of text), then use a colon. (Note: This is just a guideline to remove the need to think about what punctuation to use. It's definitely not a strict rule.)

Read more about colons before quotations

Ready for the Test?
Here is a confirmatory test for this lesson.

This test can also be:
  • Edited (i.e., you can delete questions and play with the order of the questions).
  • Printed to create a handout.
  • Sent electronically to friends or students.

More Resources to Help with Colons

(Resource 1) A Video on Using Colons

Here is a video summarizing this lesson on colons:

(Resource 2) A Slide Show Explaining Colons

Here is a six-slide presentation explaining how to use colons:


See Also

Apostrophes Brackets Commas Dashes Hyphens Semicolons Quotation Marks