Punctuation: Colons

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Touted as the “magician” of punctuation by Noah Lukeman, the colon is as potent as it is versatile. But do you make full use of this versatility, or do you confine your colon use to more pedestrian purposes, like introducing quotes and lists? Here’s a list of several colon uses for you: some you may know, and some you may not.

(1) To Introduce an Explanation or Elaboration:

                • Use: The colon says to the reader, “Attention, I’m about to explain or clarify that last point.”
  • Example: “I grabbed my bag, put on my coat, and stepped out the door: I wasn’t going back.” Here, the colon says to the reader that you’re about to explain why I did these things: because the actor is leaving for good.
  • Note: Unlike a semicolon, the second clause need not be an independent clause.

(2) To Summarize:

  • Use: Along with the colon’s ability to signal an explanation or elaboration, it can signal an upcoming summary or restatement of a previous point.
  • Example: “The legal standard had been met: the evidence was clear and convincing.”

(3) For Clarity and Conciseness:

  • Use: Whenever you feel like writing “due to the fact that,” “as a result,” “therefore,” “for that reason,” “accordingly,” or even “because,” consider using a colon instead to make the reader ask “why.”
  • Example: “Even in the face of indisputable guilty, the jury still did not convict: the concerning police overreach clearly struck a nerve.”

(4) To Introduce a List:

  • Use: A colon can introduce a list, but only if what precedes the colon is an independent clause (a full thought with a subject and verb that can stand on its own).
  • Example: “The judge cited three reasons for his decision: the defendant’s previous convictions, the severity of the crime, and the preponderance of evidence.”

(5) To Introduce a Quotation:

  • Use: A colon can be used to introduce blockquotes (quotes of 49 words or greater), or to introduce quotes with a dramatic emphasis.
  • Example: “But plaintiff instead argued for different relief: an injunction.”

And the best way for you to make sure you understand this lesson: practice problems!



1 / 5

1. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? Experts eventually realized that high-level radioactive waste was harder to dispose of than they had expected, having to be stored underground in geologic repositories that would remain stable for a million years.

2 / 5

2. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? According to one study of group dynamics, if a cluster of would-be leaders is challenged, it will soon be replaced by another cluster the quieter members who often escape scrutiny at first and thus have time to plot their strategy as they lay the groundwork for a coup.

3 / 5

3. In the next sentence, which of the underlined words or phrases, if any, has an error? Prehistoric humans transformed the ecology of previously isolated islands, deliberately introducing not only toothsome marsupials but also pigs, chickens, dogs, and crops such as: corn and avocado.

4 / 5

4. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? Economic considerations were primarily responsible for Prussia’s dominance in Germany. But most historians believe that another factor contributed to Prussia’s exalted position; Austria’s relative weakness.

5 / 5

5. Which of the following rewrites of the underlined portion is correct? During the hearing, an employee who has a grievance has a right to present evidence to a neutral panel one made up of three colleagues who are not involved in the dispute and—assuming that they show no other clear biases—are presumed to be objective and fair.

Your score is


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