The colon – we’re talking the punctuation mark rather than the large intestine here – is often overlooked. Indeed, many never use it. But they’re missing a trick. Just as it’s possible to cook without salt or go through life without eating chocolate, a well-placed colon can pep up your writing.
Although under threat from the more popular dash, colons have many uses. For example to:
- Point the reader’s attention forward
- Introduce a list
- Present an explanation or example
- Lead into direct speech or a quotation
- Introduce a question
- Link contrasting statements
- Act as a substitute for a conjunction (words that link others in a sentence such as but, and, yet, or, because, nor, although, since, unless, while, where)
- Introduce a subtitle
So, as you can see, it is an extremely versatile punctuation mark!
Examples of colon usage
Introducing a list:
In the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, we’ve had to give up many aspects of everyday life: commuting to an office, swimming, going to the gym, eating out and socialising.
Presenting an explanation or example:
This caused many businesses to close: unsurprising when their income disappeared overnight.
To introduce direct speech:
Although grammar purists insist that commas should be used to introduce speech, these days a colon is often used for this purpose instead: “Only a pedant would complain about speech being prefaced by a colon, rather than a comma.”
Giving a conclusion:
Even though restrictions are starting to be eased, one thing is clear: this pandemic will change the role of the office forever.
Introducing a question:
The government will slowly lift restrictions on one condition: can it get the UK back to work without increasing the infection, or R, rate?
Linking contrasting statements:
Humans are social creatures: yet we must keep our distance.
As substitutes for a conjunction:
It makes no sense creating a highly original marketing campaign that’s littered with mistakes: poor spelling and grammar will simply destroy its impact.
- Although their names are similar, the difference between a colon and a semicolon is not one of emphasis or strength: the two are generally used for quite separate purposes.
- Never follow a colon by a capital letter (unless the next word is a proper noun).
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