How To Use Colons

 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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