English Corner – Colons

The colon is very useful in the English language, but it is also considered to be a bit underused as a means of punctuation within the world of grammar. You have to understand the circumstances for which a ‘colon’ can be used as well as a few examples of when it can show up in a regular sentence. If you can master colons, you can definitely count yourself as being advanced as an English learner. It will take time, but I hope that this tip will help you get a little bit better in making the colon work to your advantage as a writer.

What is a colon? Well, a colon indicates the meaning of what you want to say as well as to list what is necessary for the reader or the listener to understand. Colons and semicolons are very different in terms of meaning and use. They should never be used in the same sentence and are very rarely used together.

There are a number of uses for colons, but the three top ones would be the following:

Use #1: To introduce two or more items and to list them together separated by a comma(s).

Examples:

  1. You should do the following tonight: Practice your instrument, study for the test, and help clean the dishes.
  2. He got what he wanted today: A big promotion and an increase in his salary.
  3. Remember what we talked about: work hard, tell the truth, and always give it your best effort.

Use #2: To start a letter or an e-mail to somebody.

  1. Dear Mrs. Jones:
  2. To Whom It May Concern:
  3. To My Beloved ________:

Use #3: To introduce a quote or a short summary of a few sentences:

  1. John F. Kennedy once spoke: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
  2. The author of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, wrote in the second chapter:

“Tom Sawyer went back to his bed and stared at the fence where Jim was painting for Tom’s father. Tom wondered whether his father and Jim were friends or even if they spoke to each other.” (Not a real quote from the book, just an example)

  1. The Presidential candidate was quoted as saying: “I agree that we must move forward on fighting climate change in order to create a better future for our people.”

As you can see now, there are three main uses for colons as well as some rules that have to be observed. Let us now look at some of the important rules for using colons and how to make sure that we abide by them.

Rules of Colon Usage

  1. Colons are used in the middle of most sentences and are usually followed by a list of items or words belonging to the same or similar categories.
  2. Colons can also be used between two sentences especially if the second sentence relates to the meaning of the first sentence.
  3. A colon should always be used to introduce a numbered or a bulleted list, such as for grocery items or different types of grammar concepts.
  4. As mentioned earlier, colons can be used to introduce a quote from a speaker who was reported to have said the following words and sentences. This kind of long quotation does not need quotation marks if you have already introduced who the speaker is and what they are talking about followed by the comma (:).
  5. Colons can also be used at the beginning of a letter or an e-mail in both formal and informal settings for co-workers, bosses, friends, and family members. From seeing the examples above, you can note that instead of a comma (,), a colon (:) is being used instead to introduce the salutation or the greeting for the reader of the letter or e-mail.

These are the main rules for how to use colons and it’s important to keep in mind that a colon can:

  1. Never start a formal sentence.
  2. Never end a formal sentence.
  3. It is rare to have more than one colon used in a single sentence.
  4. Colons can be used between two sentences provided there is no period (.) separating them.
  5. While not very prominently used like a comma or a period, this form of punctuation has its uses which you should know how to utilize.

Colons are a tricky subject but once you understand both the main uses and the main rules, you will be well on your way to creating better sentences and more detailed quotes from the use of this punctuation. Similar to semicolons, colons are an advanced topic that separate an advanced English grammar learner from an intermediate learner. Once you can list items, introduce quotes, and start an e-mail off right, you will know that you are using colons correctly and for the right reasons.

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