Colons before Lists and Bullet Points

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Using a Colon before a List

A colon can be used to introduce:
  • A list in sentence style.
  • A vertical list (such as a numbered list or a list of bullet points).
colons before lists

Using a Colon before a List in Sentence Style

When using a colon to introduce a list in sentence style, the introduction itself (i.e., the text before the colon), should be an independent clause to justify the colon. For example:
  • The winners were: Janet, John, and Michael.
  • (In this example, the words "The winners were" is not an independent clause, so the colon is not justified.)
  • The winners were the following: Janet, John, and Michael.
  • (This time, "The winners were the following" is an independent clause, so the colon is justified. Writers often question whether adding "the following" creates an independent clause. Well, from a grammatical perspective, it does.)
Here is another example:
  • The demonstrative determiners are: "this," "that," "these," and "those."
  • (In this example, the colon is not justified.)
  • Here is a list of the demonstrative determiners: "this," "that," "these," and "those."
  • (This time, with an independent clause as the introduction, the colon is justified.)
Read more about adding "the following" to justify a colon.

Using a Colon before a Vertical List (e.g., Bullet Points)

When a vertical list (like bullet points) is being introduced, there is far more leniency on whether the introduction needs to be an independent clause. For example:
John has organized the following events:
  • Egg-and-spoon race.
  • Toss the pancake.
  • Apple bobbing.
(No one would question the colon here as the introduction is an independent clause. This is tidy.)
John has organized:
  • Egg-and-spoon race.
  • Toss the pancake.
  • Apple bobbing.
(Almost no one would question the colon here as the list is a vertical list, even though the introduction is not an independent clause.)
Read more about the wording before a colon.
Read more about the formatting and grammatical structure of bullet points.

Not a Semicolon!

You can't introduce a list - any list - with a semicolon. For example:
  • The winners were the following; Janet, John, and Michael.
  • Here is a list of the demonstrative determiners; "this," "that," "these," and "those."
John has organized the following events;
  • Egg-and-spoon race.
  • Toss the pancake.
  • Apple bobbing.
(You can't use a semicolon to introduce a vertical list. This is a fairly common mistake.)
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

Using colons Using semicolons Using bullet points How to use colons to extend sentences Colons in references Using colons for introductions Colons with quotations