When and How to Use a Colon in Writing

Understanding the difference between a semicolon and a colon can be difficult, but understanding a colon’s function in writing will improve your writing’s clarity.

Learning when and how to use a colon can be tricky, especially since its name and function are closely related with the semicolon. Understanding the semicolon’s function in writing will help any writer understand when and how to use this form of punctuation.

A few things to keep in mind before tackling the colon as a form of punctuation. Remember that a colon, when used in a sentence, typically introduces information: a list, idea, explanation, rule, or example. Colons are also used in titles, business documents, and to reference encyclopedia and journal articles.

Frequent Colon Uses: To Introduce Information

Use a colon after a sentence that introduces a list.

  • John asked for only three things: a baseball, a bat, and your company.
  • Suzie had everything required in a best friend: the patience to listen to me whine, the boldnessto tell me when I was being stupid, and the greatest lipgloss collection a girl could hope for.

Use a colon after a sentence that introduces a new but related idea, explanation, rule, or example.

  • Yoshi demonstrated his maturity: he chose not to follow her.
  • A toy is not only for entertainment: it is also develops fine motor and social skills.

The Use of Colons in the Business World

Use a colon after the opening greeting of a business letter.

  • To Whom It May Concern:
  • Dear Dr. Transpan:

Use a colon to separate information or a name from its label.

  • To: Sandy
  • Regarding: Friday’s meeting

Miscellaneous Colon Usage: Using Colons for Time, Sourcing, and Titles

Use a colon between the hour and the minutes when documenting a specific time.

  • 2:25 a.m.
  • 9:30 p.m.

Use a colon between the chapter and verse in the bible, as a citation in literary works, and between the volume and number of certain publications.

  • Exodus 2:3-5
  • Part 15:23
  • Vol. 8:54

Use a colon to separate a title’s name from its explanation. This is most frequently used in scholarly papers and articles.

  • The Importance of the Protesting Protagonist: How Dystopian Fiction Affects Young Readers

Use a Colon as a Part of a bibliography, between the publication location and the publisher.

  • New York: Basic Books

Remember that colons are not the same as semicolons. Placing a colon between two sentences will not always suffice. Never place a colon between a verb and its object or between a preposition and its object. Remember that when using a colon in a sentence, an independent clause must always precede the colon: what follows the colon can be a dependent clause, list, thought, or another independent clause. Always check to be sure colons and semicolons are properly used in papers.

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