Colon before a List (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives
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Using a Colon before a List

A colon is often used to introduce a list. For example:
  • Lee likes the following pies: chicken and mushroom, mince and onion, and cheese and onion. correct tick
Note: When your list is written in sentence format (like the list above), the clause before the colon (here, "Lee likes the following pies") should be an independent clause (i.e., one that can stand alone as a sentence). It can usually be made an independent clause by including the term "the following." Here is an incorrect example:
  • Lee likes pies. He likes: chicken and mushroom, mince and onion, and cheese and onion. wrong cross
(Even though it feels like the term "the following" leaves the clause unfinished, it is enough to qualify the clause as an independent clause from a grammatical perspective.)
colon before a list

Using a Colon before a Bulleted List

When a colon is used with a vertical list (e.g., bulleted list, a numbered list), there is more leniency. The clause before the colon can be a short introduction that does not stand alone (i.e., is not an independent clause). For example:

We have a selection of pies. Choose from:
  • Chicken and mushroom.
  • Mince and onion.
  • Cheese and onion.       correct tick

Ensure Your Introduction Can Stand Alone

Some strict grammarians maintain that the clause before a colon must always be capable of standing alone, even when the colon introduces a vertical list. However, we judge this ruling to be outdated given how common bullet points have become in the digital era.

When a bulleted or numbered list is being introduced, it is acceptable to use an introduction that does not stand alone. For example:

The lucky winners are:

1. Fred Bloggs
2. Joe Bloggs
3. John Doe

Note: Be aware that some of your readers might consider this as sloppy writing.

Even though a short introduction is widely accepted for a vertical list, when using sentence format (i.e., normal text), you must use a fuller introduction (i.e., one that can stand alone). For example:
  • The luck winners are: Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe. wrong cross
  • The lucky winners are Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe. correct tick
Read more about using colons for introductions.
Read more about using colons with bullet points.

Lesson Summary

Do not use a colon after an incomplete introduction with a list written in sentence format. For example:
  • Select from: blue, red, and pink. wrong cross
  • Select from blue, red, and pink. correct tick
With a bulleted list, the introduction can be incomplete. For example:

Select from:
  • blue
  • Red
  • Pink.      correct tick
Read about using a colon before bullet points.

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