Former President Bill Clinton is a colon.
What is a colon? Is it a region in Cuba? Part of digestion? An Oakland A’s baseball player? A Spanish conquistador? A theater in Buenos Aires? If you said yes to each of these questions, you would be 100 percent correct. But for us writers, a colon is something else entirely.
The colon: a punctuation mark rich with meaning and full of character. Most often it is found telling the reader, “Hey, don’t go! I have more to say! I need to explain myself.” Not too different from Former President Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2012.
“They actually have charged and run ads saying that President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work. Wait. You need to know, here’s what happened. (Applause) Nobody ever tells you what really happened. Here’s what happened…”
HOW TO USE A COLON
A colon signals a pause similar to a semicolon–shorter than a period but slightly longer than a comma. Do not place a space between the preceding word and the colon. Lastly, a dash can often replace a colon; the major consideration between the two is formality. A colon is used in more formal, academic, and scholarly writing. A dash is used in less formal writing, like news articles and fiction. Although meaningful, the colon can be a little stuffy in some prose.
I. To introduce a list
A common use of a colon is to introduce a list. In this case, the colon has the same meaning as the phrases “as follows” or “the following.” Some stricter grammarian prefer to leave out these words when using a colon. Make the decision for yourself–I have seen the colon and these phrases used together effectively.
The steps for making a delicious guacamole are simple and easy:
- Cut 3 avocados in half, remove seed, and spoon flesh into a larger bowl.
- With a potato masher or the back of a fork, mash the avocados until chunky. Don’t over mash.
- Chop one tomato into chunks and add to bowl. Use masher or fork to combine.
- Chop half a head of cilantro and add to the bowl. Use masher or fork to combine.
- Juice from half of a lemon and half of a lime.
- Add 2 teaspoons of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne powder, and salt to taste.
Or the list can fit neatly into a complete sentence like in the one below.
Please bring back the following ingredients from the store: three avocados, a lemon, a lime, cilantro, and one tomato.
II. To signal an elaboration or an example of something just stated.
A colon can introduce an example, definition, elaboration, or detail of something just stated. In this case, the colon has the same meaning as “namely” or “that is.” A colon is most common between two independent clauses, but often a dependent clause and independent clause can be linked with the colon.
San Diego has a borderline arid climate: the average precipitation is less than 12 inches of rain.
III. To introduce a quote
A colon introduces longer quotations of more than one sentence and block quotes. Often the quote will illustrate a point made in the preceding sentence. Make sure that your lead-in sentence to the quote is a complete thought–no incomplete sentences before a quote.
John Steinbeck always had seemed to know more about American society, especially where it was going: “It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
IV. After a salutation
In a formal letter, a colon can be used after the salutation. This is not something you will need to worry about on the tests, but a good fact to know regardless.
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am writing in response to the job posting for a superhero…
HOW TO NOT USE A COLON
I. Not between a preposition and its object
Never separate a preposition and its object with a colon. This is highly abnormal and strange. Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate: in such a way.
INCORRECT: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate: in such a way.
And remember that this punctuation carries meanings like “namely” and “as follows.” If you replace the colons in your sentence with these words, and the sentence sounds strange, then remove the colon.
SOUNDS STRANGE: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate “as follows” in such a way.
SOUNDS STRANGE: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate “namely” in such a way.
CORRECT: Readers will stop reading and ponder why you chose to punctuate in such a way.
II. Not after words like “such as,” “like,” or “for example.”
Never use colons in conjunction with words like ”such as,” “like,” or “for example” since these words and a colon mean the same thing. Thus using both would lead to redundancy.
INCORRECT: I would give up a lot of food: like chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza.
INCORRECT: I would give up a lot of food like: chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza.
CORRECT: I would give up a lot of food like chocolate or ice cream before giving up pizza.