Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. Learn more

Learn When To Use a Colon

Elizabeth O'Brien

Hello! I'm Elizabeth O'Brien, and my goal is to get you jazzed about grammar. 

Learn More

Learn When To Use a Colon

Are you ready to learn a simple tip for using colons? Good!

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 complete sentence. 

No --> I need: milk, eggs, and sugar.

Yes --> I need milk, eggs, and sugar.

Yes --> I need a few groceries: milk, eggs, and sugar.


No --> My dog can: chase cats, shake hands, and lick ice cubes.

Yes --> 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.

2. Introducing Single Items

You can use a colon to introduce a single thing when you want to emphasize it. 

I could smell them from across the yard: charcoal-grilled burgers.

After shopping for eight hours, I finally found them: the perfect pair of jeans.

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.

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Exceptions

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 after the salutation, but you're writing a formal letter, use a colon.

To Whom It May Concern:

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Would you like to learn (or teach) the rules of punctuation?


Individuals $27


Teachers $37
  • 20 Lessons
  • Exercises For Each Lesson 
  • Answer Keys For Each Lesson
  • Printable
  • Downloadable
  • Lessons Cover Periods, Question Marks, Exclamation Marks, Parentheses, Brackets, Commas, Semicolons, Colons, Apostrophes, Slashes, Backslashes, Hyphens, Dashes, & Ellipses
  • Lifetime Access
  • 100% Money-Back Guarantee
  • Only $27 For Individuals 
  • Only $37 For Teachers (Includes A Student Account) 

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Elizabeth O'Brien

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