The colon is a tricky punctuation mark — it looks like a crossover of the period and the semicolon (which, funny enough, is partially correct), but how do you use it? As confusing as it may seem, using the colon is actually easy.
Most of the how-to comes down to these two basics:
- The colon always comes after a complete sentence. Always. (This does not apply, however, to anything after the colon).
- The colon is used to introduce something, usually either a list or a specific idea.
Introducing a List
A colon can precede either a running or a vertical list (as long as everything before the colon is a full sentence). Check out these examples.
- The lava lamps come in 4 colors: raving red, cool blue, mean green, and playful purple.
- The class had 4 options for a community service project:
- Run a food drive
- Collect coats and shoes
- Pick up trash at a public park
- Volunteer at a soup kitchen
Introducing an Idea
The colon can also be used when you want to introduce an idea. The colon acts as a dramatic pause between the two clauses while simultaneously showing they’re related.
- It is what mankind fears most: the unknown.
- Marjorie brushed aside the sad yet inevitable truth: they were going to have to sell the dog.
Using Spacing and Capitalization
Lastly, there are a couple nitty-gritty formalities to remember when using the colon. First, a colon is followed by a space, but not preceded by one (see the above examples). Second, if a colon is followed by a complete sentence, it can start with a capital letter, but this is a somewhat formal stylistic choice. Starting with a lowercase word is also considered correct:
- This mile run was her fastest yet: It was exactly six minutes.
- This mile run was her fastest yet: it was exactly six minutes.
See? Colons aren’t so tricky. Now you can use them with confidence.