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Grammar - The Colon

To use or not to use, that is the question.

Most writers are baffled by the proper use of the colon. Doubt quickly arises when the author starts to consider his choice. Should it really be a colon? Or should it be a semicolon? Or a comma? And, in fact, semicolons and commas may actually be correct. So how do you know when the colon is correct?

The colon points forward

This is the most important test when deciding if the colon is the right punctuation to use. A colon is used to point from cause to effect, from premise to conclusion, from general statement to example, from introduction to main point:

There can be only one reason for failure: incompetence.

Rules of the road

A colon is used to separate the title of a publication from its subtitle.

Gateway Computers: Tearing Down the Myth

A colon is used before a long quotation or speech.

Standing before the crowd, Abraham Lincoln began what was later to be called the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, ...”

A colon is used stylistically for dramatic effect or to emphasise.

Consider the following statement:

Incompetence can be the only reason for failure.

Now try to feel the additional drama created by structuring the statement with a colon:

There can be only one reason for failure: incompetence.

A colon is used to introduce a list.

The location offers many benefits: a train station; easy access to the motorway; a nearby hotel; and a wide variety of restaurants.

A colon is used before a phrase that explains the previous phrase.
Their project management process is impeccable: detailed explanations of status; dependable predictions of completion dates; stringent cost-control measures; and a resounding success with every engagement.

A colon is used to separate two sentences which could stand alone but are related. The two sentences usually describe opposite relationships.

Manfred Augsberg travels everywhere by train: his wife prefers to fly.

The colon is used at the end of a statement followed by illustrative details.

Last month we purchased four notebook computers: a DELL, an HP, an ASUS, and an Apple.

When a colon introduces such a list, a comma is used to separate the items when each consists of a few short words. When one or more items consist of many words, a semicolon is used as the separator:

We purchased a number of items last week: a four-colour printer; a large supply of recycled paper; four extra toner cartridges; and a new printer table.

Be careful here of how your sentence is constructed when using colons with lists and illustrative details. A colon should not be used in the following sentence after the word are because the phrase before the colon (Two books worth reading) is not a complete sentence on its own:

Two books worth reading are Crossing the Chasm and Shooting the Monkey


The following tests will help you decide if your colon usage is correct:

Does the phrase after the colon complete the first part of the sentence to create a single sentence?

If so, the usage is incorrect. The phrase before the colon must be able to stand on its own.

Is there a feeling of pointing forward from the first part of the sentence to the material following the colon?

If not, the usage is probably incorrect. A semicolon is probably more correct in this case. You might also consider rewriting the sentence.

Have you used a colon directly before linking words like namely, that is, for example, for instance, as follows or therefore?

The colon is used instead of linking words, and not in addition to them. In this case, replace the colon with a semicolon or remove the linking words.

Incorrect: Our target sectors are obvious: namely, financial services, manufacturing, and health service providers.

Correct: Our target sectors are obvious: financial services, manufacturing, and health service providers.

Correct: Our target sectors are obvious; namely, financial services, manufacturing, and health service providers.

Never use a colon after the words is, are, include and to.

Incorrect: A sector we have seriously considered approaching is: pharmaceuticals.

Correct: A sector we have seriously considered approaching is pharmaceuticals.

Correct: We have seriously considered approaching the pharmaceuticals sector.

Incorrect: The winners include: Andreas Vogt, Arno Stern and Mary Walters.

Correct: The winners include Andreas Vogt, Arno Stern and Mary Walters.

Incorrect: Simply send an e-mail to:

Correct: Simply send an e-mail to

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