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.

English Corner – The Utility of Commas

The Comma is an integral part of any English language sentence and while it may not come up all the time, it is likely to come up many of your sentences especially if they are longer than 10 sentences. The comma helps us to avoid run-on sentences or sentences that are too long-winded, which will distract the reader, and take away from the meaning of your sentence(s).

Commas should be used moderately to not to introduce many pauses within your sentences. You should be looking to use conjunctions in lieu of commas or with them depending upon the context. What you do not want to do is not use commas at all or use them too much. There is a key balance there that a writer in the English language must learn through trial and error as they develop their grammar proficiency.

What a comma (,) does in not just English but in other languages as well is to break down sentences into individual clauses with the comma acting a pause in the action to let the reader catch his or her breath. Commas are used in several scenarios but none as so important as forming a list of two or more items. In a list type of sentence, the comma is effective in separating the people, places, or things into an order from first to last to differentiate them.

If there are two or more items in the list, the comma will come before the conjunction (and, but, or) to finish out the sentence properly. This kind of arrangement forms the basis of the ‘oxford comma’, which is still being debated by English grammar scholars, but for which is popular with some English language students and is advocated for by certain teachers. The comma + conjunction combo is not only just for the oxford comma but for a wide variety of sentences.

If you had to summarize the main uses of commas in sentences, they function in terms of being placed between items for formal lists and they also establish separate yet interdependent clauses within a single sentence. The supplementary uses for commas involve being used between parts of speech such as adjectives, adverbs, and before quotations. Commas can also be used for dates related to days, months, and years in terms of how it is written.

Let’s break down the different uses of commas but listing a few examples for each type of popular usage:

Main Uses

1.      Building lists

·        Not only was Jenny captain of the Varsity soccer team but she was also President of the Chess club, and a member of the National Honor Society.

·        Felix had several things to get from the supermarket today: eggs, milk, bread, meat, and soft drinks for his daughter’s birthday party.

·        I think my grandmother, Jean, will be there along with my grandfather, Patrick, and my mother, Eunice.

2.      Separating the clauses

·        Jack wanted to go out with his friends to the movies, but he couldn’t do so because he had to finish his homework.

·        Lying to other people is not a good idea, and it often hurts other people’s feelings.

·        They were lost in the woods, hoping to get home by morning, but they were out of food and without a compass to guide them.

Supplementary Uses

1.      Adverbs and Adjectives

·        However, he was not guilty of the crime they thought he committed.

·        Moreover, they apologized to him and let him go free.

·        The dreary, sad day was encapsulated by the rainy weather.

·        President Franklin Roosevelt was fervent, unwavering in his belief in the American people’s ability to contribute to the war effort.

2.      Quotations and Dates

·        Mr. Johnson told his students, “You should always know how to use commas in sentences.”

·        LeBron was dismissive of the reporters stating, “I scored 50 points and did my best to help the team win the game.”

·        Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, United States.

·        Independence Day happened on July 4th, 1776 as the United States declared its independence from the British Empire.

As you can see from these examples, commas play a really important role in both English writing and in English grammar. There are several main uses and supplementary uses that the English language learner should be aware of. You must be able to practice each of these comma uses regardless of the purpose. In order to use commas properly, you must write your own sentences, make corrections if necessary, and get feedback from your teacher or your other classmates.

Each comma use is important whether its to separate sentence clauses, making a list of items, putting them with adjectives and adverbs, or using them for quotes or dates in those type of sentences. Without commas, you won’t have a complete sentence and you’ll run the risk of having a run-on sentence, which is what you want to avoid as much as possible in mastering English grammar and writing.