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Colons – definition
Colons are used to introduce strong pauses within sentences.
The colon is the longest pause short of a full stop.
Colons are used to introduce lists:
The car has a number of optional extras: sun roof, tinted windows, rear seat belts, and electrically operated wing mirrors.
The colon separates two clauses which could stand alone as separate sentences, but which are linked by some relationship in meaning:
My brother likes oranges: my sister hates them.
The colon is also used before a long quotation or a speech:
Speaking at Caesar’s funeral, Anthony addresses the crowd: “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”
It is also used before a clause which explains the previous statement:
The school is highly regarded: academic standards are high, the staff are pleasant, and the students enjoy going there.
The colon can be used to provide emphasis, or to create dramatic effect:
There can be only one reason for this problem: his total incompetence.
It is also used at the end of a statement which is followed by an illustration:
The vase contains beautiful flowers: roses, tulips, and daffodils.
NB! The colon followed by a dash (: —) is never necessary. The colon alone is sufficient, even before a list.
Notice that the items which follow a list are punctuated with commas if they are a succession of individual words.
You will need four ingredients: flour, butter, milk, and sugar.
If the items in the list contain clauses or phrases these may be punctuated with semicolons:
You will need the following materials: some scrap paper; a pen, preferably blue or black; some envelopes; and some good, white, unlined writing paper.
The colon requires careful handling. If you are in any doubt, use separate sentences.
The colon is also used between the title and the sub-title of a book:
Magical Realism: Latin-American fiction today.
© Roy Johnson 2003