Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The colon#3

with 12 comments

The library of the Nautilus.
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Use a colon if you want the second part of your sentence to explain, illustrate, or elaborate on the first part of your sentence. For example:

There are 5,000 books in the library: half of them are in need of repair.

He is determined to overcome his greatest fear: public speaking.

The result was inevitable: nobody survived.

The colon can also be used to throw new light on what you have already said, sometimes in an unexpected or comical way. For example:

Life’s a beach: wet, gritty and cold.

When using a colon in this way, the first part of your sentence will usually be able to stand alone. In other words, it would still make sense if you deleted everything after the colon and replaced the colon with a full stop.

Using the colon for lists

When not to use the colon for lists

User-friendly info about punctuation


12 Responses

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  1. I’m not sure if this has been addressed already, but I was also taught that the first word of the part of the sentence following the colon should be capitalized if it can stand alone.

    Maggie Manning

    03/02/2010 at 3:45 pm

    • Hi, Maggie — that’s interesting. I’m just looking in the Oxford Manual of Style to check this. The only reference to a capital letter after the colon is where the colon is used to introduce ‘direct or paraphrased speech or quoted material’. A couple of examples they give are:

      He asked me a simple question: Who was first?

      I told them only yesterday: ‘Do not in any circumstances tease the cheetah.’

      I wonder if there is a difference between UK and US English on this point?


      03/02/2010 at 4:08 pm

  2. It’s only a style point. I kind of follow Maggie’s style, but especially if it’s a long, complete sentence. Pat O’Conner says she uses caps if she wants to stress what follows, even if it’s short, e.g.”: Stop!”

    Michael Farrell

    03/02/2010 at 4:15 pm

  3. An example of colon misuse: “Police say a fifth grader brought special Fruity Pebbles treats to school on Monday: they contained marijuana.”

    I can think of a lot of ways to say it better. The writer seems to be reaching for shock value, but I don’t see it. This story is from California, which has medical-marijuana dispensaries, so the only shock value is the fact it’s a fifth grader. Maybe the simplest fix is just to say “Fruity Pebbles containing marijuana.” Or maybe drop “on Monday” — who cares? — and say “to school that contained marijuana.”

    Michael Farrell

    02/03/2010 at 3:49 pm

  4. And, in any event, the suspense is lost given the headline: “Pot in 5th graders Fruity Pebbles treat.” (Wait till the apostrophe-abuse crowd sees that one… I predict massive thrombos.)

    Michael Farrell

    02/03/2010 at 4:00 pm

    • A bit of a sentence construction/punctuation failure all round, really.

      Yes, your version is better. Perhaps:

      Fruity Pebbles containing marijuana were brought to school by a fifth grader, say police.

      (UK — probably: “taken to school”.)


      02/03/2010 at 4:26 pm

      • Too passive — but proper news-speak. The Daily Mail’s version: “Harry Pothead’s laced-up Fruity Pebbles.”

        Michael Farrell

        02/03/2010 at 6:14 pm

        • Pupil stoned on Fruity Pebbles…


          02/03/2010 at 6:25 pm

          • HAHAHAHA. Good one. Teachers suspected something was up when they looked at their pupils. *leaving now*

            Michael Farrell

            02/03/2010 at 6:44 pm

  5. Colon misuse by The Guardian (quelle horreur!): “The National Portrait Gallery has discovered that in this portrait Gloriana originally held a far more disturbing object ‑ a serpent twined around her fingers.”

    Michael Farrell

    06/03/2010 at 3:48 pm

  6. That’s a very good illustration of the colon being overlooked in favour of its more casual friend, the dash. A colon would have been so much better there. Are you sure it was in the Grauniad? Not a paper known for errors…


    06/03/2010 at 4:49 pm

  7. I am fairly sure, but it’s possible the Daily Mail, lured by the key terms “queen” and “serpent,” accidentally posted a story on the National Portrait Gallery.

    Does the misuse matter? Not much, but some. The point would be clearer with the right punctuation.

    Michael Farrell

    06/03/2010 at 5:08 pm

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