Um, Your Colon Is Showing…

Star Trek ColonSome time ago, Anjali asked me to expound on the use of colons. How do they differ from semicolons? What is the correct way to use one?

The colon’s role is to direct the reader’s attention to what comes next (unlike semicolons, which are primarily used to connect two independent clauses). This can happen in a few different ways.

1) Colons are used to introduce an element (or elements) that amplifies the independent clause that precedes the colon. (Note: if the words preceding the colon cannot stand alone, you should not use a colon.)

  • Scotty finished tinkering with the matter-antimatter integrator: hopefully he had done enough to take the ship out of danger.

2) Colons are used to introduce a series of elements that are related to the independent clause that precedes the colon. Typically the series of elements would be contained within the same sentence, but sometimes colons are used in this manner to introduce a series of related sentences.

  • Captain Kirk faced a dilemma: He could search for the ensign who had disappeared. He could listen to Spock and return to the Enterprise. Or he could go with the sexy green alien whose dress hinted at a surprisingly human female form.

3) Colons are used after introductory phrases like as follows or the following.

  • Star Trek brought us the following aliens: Klingons, Tribbles and the Crystalline Entity.

4) Colons can be used to introduce speech, either in dialogue or by introducing a quotation.

  • Dr. McCoy blustered indignantly: “For Pete’s sake, I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer!”

5) And finally, colons can be used at the beginning of formal communication (letters, speeches, etc.) to identify the person(s) being addressed.

  • Dear Stargate Federation: I’m here today to talk about the future of Captain James T. Kirk…

And there you have it, dear readers. Colons exist to help focus our attention on what follows them. Until next time!

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Image credit: © Fanpop

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3 thoughts on “Um, Your Colon Is Showing…

    1. Thanks! I don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but here in Canada elementary and secondary schools don’t usually do a good job of teaching grammar. It’s a sad state of affairs, but I still have hope that it can change!

      P.S. I hear you – the semicolon was the first piece of punctuation I wrote about on this blog.

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