Colons before Lists and Bullet Points

by Craig Shrives
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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. wrong cross
  • (In this example, "The winners were" is not an independent clause, so the colon is not justified.)
  • The winners were the following: Janet, John, and Michael. correct tick
  • (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." wrong cross
  • (In this example, the colon is not justified.)
  • Here are the demonstrative determiners: "this," "that," "these," and "those." correct tick
  • (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. correct tick
(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. correct tick
(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. wrong cross
  • Here are the demonstrative determiners; "this," "that," "these," and "those." wrong cross
John has organized the following events; wrong cross
  • 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.)

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See Also

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