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Writing Tips: How to Use Colons

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I'm a dental hygienist, pyrography artist, avid gardener, writer, vegetarian, world traveler, and many other things!

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Colons are the most badly named punctuation marks in existence. If you don't believe me, do an image search. On the other hand, take my advice and don't do it; I'm pretty sure I've been scarred for life. (I'm only half-kidding!)

I was curious to find out how the colon got such an unfortunate name. Here's the etymology in case you're interested: 1540s, from L. colon "part of a poem," from Gk. kolon (with a long initial -o- ) "part of a verse," lit. "limb," from PIE base *(s)kel- "to bend, crooked" (see scalene). Meaning evolved from "independent clause" to punctuation mark that sets it off.

Poor, unfunny colon. *Sigh* Nobody in the world thinks you can be funny but me. Maybe I can convince others of your true worth! Maybe you have some fun and laughter hidden in that vacant stare!

I admit I don't use colons often, but when the time comes they're indispensable. As punctuation marks go they're not the most popular, or the coolest, but they have hidden talents that every writer should learn to harness. Let's go!

Proper Usage

Colons inform the reader that what is to come either further explains, proves, or lists what was mentioned previously. It's a little difficult at first, but don't worry; you'll get it.


Colons should only be used after a full sentence that ends in a noun (person, place, or thing). There is no space after the noun, and one space after the colon. A good indication of whether you should use a colon is to replace it with the word namely.

Try this:

  • Learning grammar takes three things, namely, time, patience, and repetition.
  • There was only one thing Kate could think of, namely, helping people improve their writing.

Correct:

  • Learning grammar takes three things: time, patience, and repetition.
  • There was only one thing Kate could think of: helping people improve their writing.

Incorrect:

  • Learning grammar takes: Time, patience, and insanity.
  • Kate seemed focused on: Making colons moderately interesting.

There's some argument about capitalizing the word following a colon. I'll spare you the petty details as it's a pretty boring debate and I have an easy solution. Only capitalize the word following a colon if it's a proper noun (name of a person, place, or thing). This will satisfy nearly all grammarians, including yours truly!

Correct:

  • Right now I have two responsibilities: finish this hub and fly South for the winter.
  • I know what you're thinking: Kate must dream about grammar at night.

Incorrect:

  • I need to buy some things at the store: Orange juice, toothpaste, and I can't remember what else.
  • You're doing well: You're starting to understand this colon thing, aren't you?


As with semicolons, colons go outside of parentheses and quotation marks.

Examples:

  • "This is an ugly grammar rule": colons outside of quotation marks look dumb.
  • (Kate can't think of many examples): it's not often you need to use a colon at the end of parentheses or a quote.

Logical Consequence ("Syntactical Deductive")

Colons can introduce the logical consequence of the sentence that came before it.

Examples:

  • Kate didn't want to go on a walk: it was snowing outside.
  • Colons are awesome: they're super useful!

Colon Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. You should always capitalize the word following a colon.
    • True
    • False
  2. Which sentence uses the colon Correctly?
    • I went to the store and bought: chips, dips, and quips.
    • I got some groceries after work: chips, dips, and quips.
  3. I like cats: my own.
    • This sentence uses the colon Correctly.
    • This sentence uses the colon Incorrectly.
  4. This word helps indicate whether a colon can be used.
    • Heretofore
    • Namely

Answer Key

  1. False
  2. I got some groceries after work: chips, dips, and quips.
  3. This sentence uses the colon Correctly.
  4. Namely

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: Go Back And Read This Hub Again! :)

If you got 2 correct answers: You're Doing Okay, Stick With It! :)

If you got 3 correct answers: You're Well On Your Way To Colon Genius! :)

If you got 4 correct answers: You're The Master Chief Of Colons! Wooot! :)

Description ("Syntactical Descriptive")

Colons can also introduce a description of like things in a grouping. This includes the keeping of time and reference to particular passages in popular texts like epic poetry, works of Shakespeare, or religious texts.

Examples:

  • Kate has three rules: work hard, do your best, and make fun of yourself whenever possible.
  • Learning about colons is fun: they're useful, minimalistic, and don't overstay their welcome.
  • The really bad Hollywood remake of a classic movie starts at 4:30 pm.
  • Matthew 5:5-14 is a pretty good read, especially if you need an excuse for being meek.

Introduction ("Segmental")

Colons are also used to introduce speech.

Examples:

  • The readers proclaimed the benefits of colons: their use is endless.
  • Remember this, young Skywalker: "I am your father!"

© 2011 Kate P

Comments

RobinV. on September 01, 2017:

Thanks! This will still be easier to remember then comma ussage. I'll just remember lists for now with a complete sentence and come back later to study the other ways it's used.

After he got in he faced me silently for a moment. Scanning his uniform his name tag read, Roland. Well, I think that last comma is right, please correct me if I'm wrong.

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on July 31, 2012:

It takes a lot of practice, but hopefully some of these rules will be helpful.

Thanks for all the wonderful comments!

Lori Colbo from United States on May 17, 2012:

Very helpful. I use colons all the time in Titles, and not so infrequently in my sentences. But you have once again given me some clarity. You have saved me lot of money on a remedial grammar class.

htodd from United States on March 18, 2012:

Great writing tips ..Thanks

billchucks on February 09, 2012:

excellent hub;my writing should improve by this

Kim Lam from California on February 06, 2012:

Thank you for writing this review. I need to pay more attention to how I use colons!

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on January 07, 2012:

You're all very welcome. Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

V Qisya on November 18, 2011:

thank you so much ;D

Clara Kish from Mt. Perry. Ohio on November 17, 2011:

Thanks,I will try to practice on this when I am not so pressed for time ,I will keep this in mind .

waxi on November 10, 2011:

Thanks kate for sending the link . Its so kind of you.

Look forward to more Hubs from you and all my wishes for your success

Waqxi

Today's Quote: "An inche of gold cannot buy an inche of time " ---------[Ancient Chinese proverb]

Lateral3 on November 10, 2011:

Increasingly I have found myself using colons and semicolons over recent months. In fact the more I write the more I feel the need to refine the punctuation. I'll take a look at your other tutorials.

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on November 10, 2011:

Thank you all very, very much. However, I am a mere mortal just trying to make grammar fun. I appreciate your feedback and look forward to adding more grammar hubs soon. Thanks a lot! :)

Waqxi, it's good to see you here again! Thanks so much for your praise; wow! I'm glad you found it so helpful. Hey, here's a great explanation of [sic]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sic :)

ANIL KUMAR UPADHYAY from INDIA, UTTAR PRADESH STATE, KANPUR CITY on November 10, 2011:

The most essential part of writing is explained beautifully by you, in this hub. Appreciated and voted it as an awesome.

Kamalesh Chakraverty from Sahaganj, Dist. Hooghly, West Bengal, India on November 10, 2011:

A very beautiful, useful and interesting hub. And of course educative and nicely presented. Thank you very much for sharing. Voted Up.

Best Wishes, Kamalesh

waxi on November 10, 2011:

Dear Kate no pretentious glorifications for you a simple statement that rides on fact : you are the prettist face on which the sun shines .Your discourses on Grammer has a consecrated air that will pay handsomely to thoes who read and make use of them . They will be a great guide for my students to help them brush up their English skills.

I beg of you to help me understand what Sic means

Bless you wonderful Kate

your fan : Waqxi

wanzulfikri from Malaysia on November 09, 2011:

You've been helping me a lot with the use of colons. Thanks for the grammar tips!

sweethearts2 from Northwest Indiana on November 09, 2011:

Voted up - really useful, interesting and amusing. I need all the help I can get: I like getting it here.

shea duane from new jersey on November 09, 2011:

I love your pictures! Great hub!

Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on November 09, 2011:

@Mary615, as always I appreciate your feedback. To be honest colons are my least favorite punctuation mark. I'm pretty sure they're the least used (other than for writing time and smiley faces!) I literally used to rewrite sentences to avoid them, but I've been trying to embrace them more lately. :)

@Jo_Goldsmith11, I'm so glad I could help you out! Yeah, I use (*) in informal settings and sometimes when I want to express something like a *cough.* Instead, if you italicize or use boldface, it'll be more professional. I have lots of other hubs on grammar if you check my profile page. For now, here's the one on semicolons: https://discover.hubpages.com/literature/Writing-T... :)

Mary Hyatt from Florida on November 09, 2011:

I try and avoid using a colon, because I'm never quite sure of how it should be used, so this was very helpful to me (as are your other Hubs) Maybe now I'll be brave enought to use a colon every now and again.

Jo_Goldsmith11 on November 09, 2011:

thank you so much! I was in real need of being careful about my colon use. This is so very helpful! You are the best! I voted up! quick question tho, I use (*) to emphasize a word, instead of caps. I as well thought, that when we use (;) too much, in our writing it isn't good either. I know, I need some english help! (lol)

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