Colons: More than Just Two Dots

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Colons are a useful punctuation tool because they create the expectation that what follows them is directly related to what precedes them. Colons are often used and formatted incorrectly in a number of instances. Fortunately, this guide is here to show you the proper usage, ensuring you maintain grammatical perfection in all your writing endeavors.

Colons and independent clauses

Before you venture below, remember that what precedes a colon is always an independent sentence or clause, but dependent clauses, phrases and words may follow it. The most common misuse of colons is placing them in the middle of an independent sentence. Consider the below examples:

Example 1: Anyone who wishes to succeed as a freelance writer must have: dedication, strong time management skills and excellent knowledge of all things grammatical.

The first example above shows the incorrect use of a colon because what precedes it is not an independent sentence, or a complete thought. The colon is incorrectly used in the middle of the sentence. You leave reader asking, “must have what?” Even though the answer to that question follows the colon, it is incorrect.

Example 2: There are three attributes that make you more likely to succeed as a freelance writer: dedication, strong time management skills and excellent knowledge of all things grammatical.

The second example is correct because what precedes the colon is a complete sentence. Even though the specifics of what attributes a freelance writer must have follow the comma, the clause in front of the comma completes the thought. If readers ask the same question from the first example, the answer (three attributes) is within the sentence. What those attributes are follow the colon, which shows the attributes are directly related to the independent clause before the colon.

Example 3: Above all else, a freelance writer must learn to manage one thing well: time.

The third example is correct because what precedes the colon is a complete sentence as well. What comes after it is only one word, but it is directly related to the independent sentence, making it grammatically correct.

Colons and lists

Colons are commonly used to precede a list. When using colons in this way, you can create lists horizontally (as was shown in Example 2 above), or you can use colons to precede a vertical list in the following manner.

She needs to pick up a few things from the grocery store:

  • apples
  • Bananas
  • carrots
  • green beans

Colons and titles

Titles that have subtitles require the use of a colon. The main title precedes the colon, and the subtitle follows it. For example, the below example is a title that requires a colon.

Example: Time Management: An Essential Tool for Success as a Freelancer

Colons and salutations

Formal letters, emails and other formal or business-related correspondence often include a salutation, such as the “dear sir” or “to whom it may concern” that starts many cover letters for resume submissions. It is widely accepted to include the colon following the greeting in these cases.

Colons and formatting

Much like the debate over how many spaces to use between sentences, the spacing following colons is not a hard and fast rule. In the past, double spacing was preferred because most things were typed on a typewriter. However, with the prevalent use of computers, one space after a colon is the most widely used and best approach.

Another consideration when formatting is whether to capitalize the first word of what follows the colon when what follows is a complete sentence. Again, there is no hard and fast rule that applies. However, unless a specific style guide or set of instructions specifically requests that capitalization is used in this instance, stick with keeping the first word following it lower case to maintain consistency with other uses of the colon, where the first word is only capitalized if it is a proper noun.