Are you ready for an earth-shatteringly simple tip for using colons?
Colons should be preceded by a complete sentence.
We'll look at three main uses for colons, and we'll see that each of them uses a complete sentence before the colon. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and we'll cover those below.
1. Introducing Lists
Many people mistakenly add a colon before every list. Remember that whatever comes before the colon needs to be a sentence.
No --> I need: milk, eggs, and sugar.
Yes -->I need a few groceries: milk, eggs, and sugar.
Yes --> I need milk, eggs, and sugar.*
No --> My dog can: chase cats, shake hands, and lick ice cubes.
Yes --> My dog can do the following: chase cats, shake hands, and lick ice cubes.
Yes --> My dog can chase cats, shake hands, and lick ice cubes.*
* Note that you don't need a colon before every list.
2. Introducing Single Items
You can use a colon to introduce a single thing when you want to emphasize it.
After shopping for eight hours, I finally found them: the perfect pair of jeans.
I could smell them from across the yard: charcoal-grilled burgers.
3. Between Two Complete Sentences
This only works if the second sentence states a logical consequence of whatever is stated in the first sentence.
Jim ate brownies constantly: He gained seven pounds.
Don't worry: We fixed the leak.
Here are some exceptions to the rule of having a sentence before the colon.
1. Introducing Dialogue in a Script
You might remember this from reading plays aloud in your English classes. Did you do this? Wasn't it fun?
Michael: So how do you do it?
Peter: You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and they lift you up into the air.
2. Time, Bible Citations, Ratios
These seem pretty obvious, but I thought I'd include them anyway! Note that there is no space after the colon in these examples.
The party starts at 2:30.
John 3:16 is a popular Bible verse.
4:3 is the ratio of width to height of standard-definition television.
3. Between a Book's Title and Subtitle
The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America's Wealthy
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Don't use a colon between a title and subtitle if the title contains quotation marks that end in an exclamation mark or question mark.
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character
4. After the Salutation in Formal Letters (American English)
In casual letters, you would use a comma, but if it's a formal letter, use a colon.
To Whom It May Concern:
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar.
I love and value your program! [Get Smart] I
teach at an all ELL secondary school and the online + video/visual has
been invaluable for these students! Thank you for making this possible.
- Diane, Teacher
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