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The Proper Use of Colons in a Sentence

A colon is generally used to provide an introduction to certain words, phrases, lists, and items. It is also frequently used for introducing a quotation in a sentence. Many researchers refer to colons as the punctuation marks that enhance the information placed before the colon. They may serve as amplifiers of the context. They are normally put between two independent clauses. As a punctuation device, a colon must always be prefaced by an independent clause.

Colons with phrases

Colons are placed in a sentence to amplify its meaning. They may also introduce certain phrases or words.

✔️ She was looking for a single virtue: honesty.

If the colon is put in a sentence with an independent clause, make sure that the punctuation is correct:

✔️ The choice of the dress was simple: a purple gown.

The confusion about using colons in a sentence comes from not understanding where they belong. Grammar manuals suggest that colons can be referred to as the punctuation marks that provide additional information. They are usually placed after the independent clause and are substitutes for words such as “thus” and “which”. An example of this can be seen below:

✔️ There are two colors that go with everything: black and grey.

In the example above, the colon signifies that the readers will soon learn the information placed after the punctuation mark. Below, you will see a similar sentence that illustrates the rule:

✔️ We have come across two types of birds: nocturnal and diurnal.

⚪ Colons are used to introduce words:
✔️ She was looking for a single virtue: honesty.
⚪ Colons are used with an independent clause:
✔️ The choice of the dress was simple: a purple gown.
⚪ Colons are used to substitute “such as’ and “which”:
✔️ There are two colors that go with everything: black and grey.
⚪ Colons are used to specify information before the colon:
✔️ We have come across two types of birds: nocturnal and diurnal.

Colons and lists

A colon may be used with lists. It is put after the introductory clause in a sentence. Please note that the colon can only be used if the introductory phrase is a complete sentence:

✔️ My everyday hobbies are not a secret: history, science, and literature.

However, a colon is not always necessary to make the sentence complete. In the example below, a colon can never be used after the verb:

✔️ My everyday hobbies include history, science, and literature.

In this sentence, the verb “include” determines the list of subjects mentioned in the example. It also connects the list with the introductory clause. Therefore, no colon is needed to connect the subjects to the independent clause in a specific sentence. Below, you will see the correct and incorrect use of colons in a text that contains an introductory clause. These examples will illustrate the proper use of colons:

Wrong❌ Right✔️
We know that the regular menu will include: cottage cheese, macaroni, and yogurt. We know that the regular menu will include cottage cheese, macaroni, and yogurt.
Two events that precede the ceremony are: the speech and the presentation. Two events that precede the ceremony are the speech and the presentation.
This research will be based on materials collected from: the library, the media, and the interviews. This research will be based on materials collected from the library, the media, and the interviews.
He mentioned: the head of the company, the staff, and the local businesses. He mentioned the head of the company, the staff, and the local businesses.

Colons and independent clauses

A colon may be placed in a sentence with two independent clauses to separate the clauses. It happens when:

  • The second clause is connected with the first clause
  • The second clause needs to be underlined in a sentence

It is common to use a semicolon between two independent clauses that are connected. However, a colon is a better alternative to show the relation between the parts of the sentence:

  • ✔️ We are here for the stargazing: the sky is unusually clear.
  • ✔️ The scientists are adamant: they have found a new star.

It is important to point out that British English allows using a colon without capitalizing the words that follow it. However, it is necessary to use capitalization with proper nouns. In other cases, capitalization is not needed:

  • ✔️ They had the evening planned: a dinner at a cozy place and their favorite movies.
  • ✔️ He was looking for two people: his cousin and his friend.

Colons and explanations

A colon is used for connecting two clauses, where one of the clauses comes after the first one. The second clause is used for providing an explanation or giving background information. This is illustrated in the example below:

  • ✔️ He was certain about this event: the planning has been sufficient.
  • ✔️ There was no way they could get there in time: the taxi was late.

In the sentences above, a colon is used to elaborate on the first part of the sentence. The first clause can be interpreted as a complete sentence. Therefore, the use of the punctuation device is justified. The punctuation errors below can be fixed by editing the context:

Wrong❌ Right✔️
The studies summarized: famous people thrived in public settings. The studies provided a summary: famous people thrived in public settings.
The poll concluded: the elections had to be performed. The poll was conclusive: the elections had to be performed.

Colons and capitalization

When writing an academic paper, it is good to be consistent with colon use throughout the text. Capitalizing the first word after the colon depends on the citation style, mentioned in the instructions. MLA, APA, and Chicago citation styles have separate requirements concerning the use of colons. It is commonly believed that the first word should be written in lower case:

✔️ These shows had a common theme: social issues have to be taken seriously.

In the example above, a colon is preceding the independent clause, which forms a complete sentence.

✔️ He confessed there was a season he enjoyed the most: winter.

In the example above, a colon is preceding the dependent clause, which does not form a complete sentence.

Common colon mistakes

Colons are often misused in a sentence with a subject and a predicate. A colon can never separate a noun and a verb, a subject and a predicate. Below, you will see the example of the colon used incorrectly:

The two most underrated music genres are: rock and metal.

In the sentence above, a colon separates the subject and the verb preceding the subject. This is the correct version of the sentence:

✔️ The two most underrated music genres are rock and metal.

Another misuse of a colon can be spotted below:

When he finished work, he went to: the store and the bakery.

The sentence above is incorrect because the colon is used to separate the object of the sentence and the preposition. This is how the sentence should be edited:

✔️ When he finished work, he went to the store and the bakery.

In the sentence above, the colon is removed to achieve the correct meaning. Here is another common colon mistake in a sentence:

  • They have brought many packages, including: the blue one and the red one.
  • ✔️ They have brought many packages, including the blue one and the red one.

In the example above, the removal of a colon helps improve the coherence of the sentence. To make sure that the placement of the colon is correct, it is important to look at the clause preceding the colon. The clause should form a complete sentence to be followed by a colon.

Colons are also used for providing an explanation, bringing attention to the subject, or combining certain ideas in a sentence. It emphasizes the information, following the first clause.

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