Colons for Introductions

by Craig Shrives

Colon after an Introduction

A colon (:) can be used after an introduction. In these examples, the introductions are highlighted:
  • There are just two more things we need to do: sign the contract and pop the cork.
  • The following personnel have been selected:

    1. Fred Bloggs
    2. Joe Bloggs
    3. John Doe
  • Lee likes the following pies: cheese and onion, chicken and mushroom, and beef and ale.
  • (For a list in normal text, the introduction before the colon should be an independent clause (i.e., a clause that could stand alone as a sentence). From a grammatical perspective, an independent clause is achieved by using the words "the following," even though it seems the "sentence" is unfinished.)
using a colon after an introduction

Ensure Your Introduction Can Stand Alone

When a colon is used in normal-looking text (i.e., not a vertical list like bullet points), the introduction before the colon should be capable of standing alone. In other words, it should be an independent clause. Some strict grammarians maintain this ruling applies to all introductions preceding colons, even those that introduce bullet points and numbered points (like in the second example above).

Look at these two examples:
  • The people selected are: Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe.
  • The following people have been selected: Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe.
Now, look at this:
  • The people selected are Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe.
  • (The first example above is okay when the colon is removed.)

Introduction to a Quotation

To justify a colon, the introduction before a quotation should also be an independent clause. For example:
  • He said these words: "not yet."
  • He said: "not yet."
  • (The introduction is not an independent clause. The colon is not justified.)
  • He said, "not yet."
  • (A comma is correct.)
With quotations, there's another rule: if the quotation is a sentence, then a colon can be used.
  • He said: "I'm not there yet."
  • (The introduction is not an independent clause, but the quotation is a sentence. The colon is justified.)
Read more about colons with quotations.

For Vertical Lists, There Is More Leniency

When a vertical list is being introduced (typically, a bulleted list or numbered list), it is more acceptable to use an introduction that does not stand alone. For example:
  • The people selected are:

    1. Fred Bloggs
    2. Joe Bloggs
    3. John Doe
Be aware, however, that some of your readers might view this as sloppy writing. And, remember that while such an introduction is widely accepted for a vertical list, for normal text, the colon would be wrong.

A full introduction is tidier. For example:
  • The following points were noted as a result of the fire-safety survey:

    a. Fire exits blocked by empty PC boxes.
    b. Batteries dead in smoke detectors.
    c. Waste-paper bins used as ashtrays.

Using "The Following"

Look at this example:
  • The winners are the following: John, Sarah, and Simon.
The introductions above might feel incomplete because the words "the following" suggest there is more to come. However, this introduction is an independent clause. It includes a subject and a predicate. Compare the last example with this:
  • The winners are: John, Sarah, and Simon.
  • (The colon is wrong. The introduction before the colon does not contain a subject and a predicate; i.e., it cannot stand alone. This is unacceptable in normal text.)
It would be correct without the colon:
  • The winners are John, Sarah, and Simon.
Where possible, write your introductions as independent clauses. However, you will encounter plenty of circumstances when an independent clauses is inappropriate. For example:
  • Contact us by:

    1. Phone: 01908 311267
    2. E-mail: colin@lion-tamers.co.uk
    3. Fax: 01908 311269
  • Beer: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems. (Homer Simpson)
  • Diplomacy: the patriotic art of lying for one's country. (Author Ambrose Bierce)
  • The English country gentleman galloping after a fox: the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. (Playwright Oscar Wilde)
In these three examples, the text after the colon is called an appositive (an equal term).

Read more about using colons.

Not a Semicolon

Do not use semicolons for introductions.
  • I spotted the following members of the crow family while on the moors;

    a. rook
    b. magpie
    c. carrion crow
  • The following personnel passed the first-aid test on Tue 24 Aug;

    a. Jane Seymour (97%).
    b. David Evans (91%).
    c. Dawn Ellison-Smith (91%).

A Colon and a Hyphen

There is no need to add a hyphen to a colon.
  • You will benefit from:-

    1. Lower interest rates
    2. Free survey 
    3. 24-hour helpdesk  
(It's not wrong. It's just a waste of ink.)
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

How to use colons to extend sentences Colons in references Colons with bullet points Colons with quotations