Blog - Proofreading and Copy Editing

Punctuation IV: Colons

Are you using colons correctly? This post should help you find out.

When using colons, the most common pitfall is to confuse their use with that of semicolons (you can revise semicolons with our previous post, Punctuation I: The Semicolon). In general, there are two situations where both colons and semicolons can be found: breaking up a sentence, or as part of a list. However, their use in these situations differs. There is also one situation in which only a colon is found: introducing quotations or direct speech.


Colon as part of a sentence
While a semicolon is used as a strong break between two clauses, a colon is used more as an introduction to an ‘explaining’ phrase clause.

For example:
Only one thing is more powerful than fear: hope.
There was only one explanation: he had been kidnapped by aliens.

Whereas the clauses either side of a semicolon should usually be able to stand as sentences in their own right, this is not necessary with a colon. In particular, the second clause need only be a short phrase or even a single word.


Colon as part of a list
Colons and semicolons work together in lists. Semicolons can be used in place of commas to divide the items in a list, especially where the list items themselves are quite lengthy. By contrast, a colon’s job is to introduce the entire list.

For example:
A Cuba Libre contains two ingredients: rum and cola.
The island of Borneo is divided between three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The government has made the following promises: to decrease the national debt; to increase funding for health, education and transport; and to redraw constituency boundaries.


Colon to introduce a quotation
The final main use of a colon is to introduce a quotation, or sometimes direct speech. Semicolons should never be used in this context.

For example:
The signpost read: “Newcastle 35 miles”.
The textbook states: “You must show all your working in your answers.”
Jennifer shouted: “Wait! You can’t do that!”

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Posted in Proofreading/copy-editing, Punctuation