Friday, January 25, 2013

When To Use Colons

In the titles of law review articles, authors frequently insert colons. In other situations, I believe that writers often fail to use colons when their use could improve the writing. And sometimes there is confusion about the conventional rules for using colons. Here are sets of rules from two authoritative sources, with examples.

From, here are the most significant rules:

Rule 1

Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words such as namely, for example, or that is do not appear.

You may be required to bring many items: sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.
I want the following items: butter, sugar, and flour.
I want an assistant who can do the following: (1) input data, (2) write reports, and (3) complete tax forms.

Rule 2

A colon should not precede a list unless it follows a complete sentence; however, the colon is a style choice that some publications allow.

If a waitress wants to make a good impression on her customers and boss, she should (a) dress appropriately, (b) calculate the bill carefully, and (c) be courteous to customers.
There are three ways a waitress can make a good impression on her boss and her customers:
(a) Dress appropriately.
(b) Calculate the bill carefully.
(c) Be courteous to customers.

I want an assistant who can (1) input data, (2) write reports, and (3) complete tax forms.

From the Guide to Writing and Grammar, sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation:

 Use a colon [ : ] before a list or an explanation that is preceded by a clause that can stand by itself. Think of the colon as a gate, inviting one to go on:

There is only one thing left to do now: confess while you still have time.

The charter review committee now includes the following people:

the mayor

the chief of police

the fire chief

the chair of the town council

You nearly always have a sense of what is going to follow or be on the other side of the colon. (Compare the function of a semicolon in this regard.) You will find differing advice on the use of a colon to introduce a vertical or display list. See Using Numbers and Creating Lists.

We will often use a colon to separate an independent clause from a quotation (often of a rather formal nature) that the clause introduces:

The acting director often used her favorite quotation from Shakespeare's Tempest: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep."


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