Punctuation Pitfalls – The Colon

Again my primary source for the information I’ll share about the use of the colon [:] is the trusty and oh-so-reliable The Chicago Manual of Style.

Besides a few specialty uses (between chapter and verse numbers in Biblical references, after the greeting in a business letter, as part of a URL) the colon serves to introduce information that illustrates or amplifies. Such may be a single element or a series of elements.

Here’s an example from Lost Mission by Athol Dickson (Howard Fiction):

    “Tell me this as well: Jonah, who tried to escape the calling of our Lord, what was the result?”

I find this use in fiction, in dialogue, to be the exception, but it follows the principle of amplification—the question amplifies or explains what the speaker meant by “this.”

More commonly the colon precedes a list of examples or clarifying elements.

    The newspaper only covered the major team sports: football, basketball, soccer, and baseball/softball.

Please note, a colon is inappropriate when introducing a list with a verb, a preposition, or before a transition such as namely or for example.

    An author’s bio should only include information pertinent to writing, namely, writer awards, publishing credits, and writing courses.

Notice the absence of a colon after namely.

    Some of my favorite books are Watership Down, Till We Have Faces, and The Book of Three.

Again note there is no colon after the verb are.

    The workshop dealt with point of view, speaker attributions, and excessive use of adverbs.

In the above example, no colon is needed after the preposition with.

More often a list requiring a colon utilizes a phrase like as follows or the following.

    The ingredients in this recipe for pie crust are as follows: flour, water, shortening, and salt.

In addition to the introduction of a list, the colon may be used between independent clauses, much as a semicolon is used, “though more strongly emphasizing sequence” (Chicago, 6.63).

    Many of the members of their writers’ group attend conferences: three went to Mount Hermon, and three more registered for the OC Writers’ Conference.

In the above example, the second and third clauses come naturally after the first. The order could not be reversed and still retain clarity. In other words, the sequence is vital; therefore, the colon is the better punctuation mark.

A third use of the colon is to introduce a series of related sentences.

    The agent awaited the author’s decision: Would he finish the novel first? Or would he begin his memoir while his name was still before the public?

One more. A colon may introduce speech or a short excerpt. A common use of the colon in this way is in a script. But on occasion a writer wishes to refer to quoted material and the colon is the best introduction. Here’s an example.

    His favorite opening line is as stunning as it is brief: “Call me Ishmael.”

With all these uses, it’s a wonder we don’t see more colons. Their uses are perhaps more specialized than, say, the comma that appears when we want to indicate a pause.

My recommendation? Without a specific reason to employ a colon, don’t. 😀

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Colon

  1. How about in situations like “hosted by: Jeff Foxworthy”? I saw this usage of a colon on a subway ad and it drove me nuts– “by” is a preposition (like in your fifth example) and so the colon makes no sense there, and is cumbersome to boot. However, I see it so often now– my music notation software defaults to displaying “music by:” and “lyrics by:” in the score when you insert songwriters’ information– that I wonder if I’m just being grumpy.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Warren.

    One thing I’ve learned is to give those using different punctuation the benefit of the doubt. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, the style book favored by fiction publishers, a colon after “by” is unnecessary. But what if a different style manual determines that a colon before a work of art is a proper use? Since I don’t know ALL style books (there are a ridiculous number, I discovered, some highly specialized), I’m not going to make a judgment on what others write, and I’m certainly not going to lose sleep. 😉

    But when it comes to my writing, I’m following an accepted norm that says no colon after a preposition. (And of course any knowledgeable professional will do the same! 😆 )

    Becky

  3. That kind of colon error (“written by: author’s name”) doesn’t seem to be a matter of style, but rather repeating something else that’s legitimate and mistakenly applying it elsewhere– one might see credits for a movie listed in a newspaper as “writer: name” and “director: name” and then assume the colon still applies even with the word “by” there. (I see it all the time on the title pages of middle-schoolers’ reports.) I can’t imagine any style manual would openly endorse something that awkward-looking. “Written by” is really shorthand for “This work of art was written by,” so the colon makes no sense there either way.

  4. Warren, I’m in agreement with you. I’ve seen colons used before quotations in the same way.

    However, I’ve been adamant before only to learn there WAS a style book that taught what I thought was deplorable.

    So I won’t go so far as to claim there is no chance a colon after a prep is acceptable. There might be some kind of specialty or niche style book that might okay it—certainly not one I’m familiar with.

    Becky

  5. Ann King

    Thank you for this helpful summary. I am investigating another aspect of colon usage, namely, its place in the hierarchy. I need to explain to an author why he should not use a colon and then continue the sentence after the list in the following sentence, for example:
    “He set out the following ingredients: flour, sugar, water and milk, and then went on to mix them together.”
    Very few people discussing punctuation online appear to deal with the topic of hierarchy.

  6. Hi, Ann. I went back over Chicago to see if I could find anything that would help you. Unfortunately, I don’t see a guideline or an example that addresses this issue.

    I am thinking, however, that the author could use a semicolon instead of the conjunction and and create a second clause. I’m suggesting this because the guide for the semicolon says it’s to be used instead of a comma if there is internal punctuation in the clauses. Clearly the colon and following commas would qualify as internal punctuation in the first clause. Anyway, what I’m suggesting, I think, would also eliminate the idea that the second clause is linked to the list. Here’s what it would look like:

    “He set out the following ingredients: flour, sugar, water and milk; then he went on to mix them together.”

    Better than that, in my opinion, would be to use em dashes for the parenthetical material instead (a substitution Chicago also says is an option):

    “He set out the following ingredients—flour, sugar, water and milk—and then went on to mix them together.”

    As I recall, the list of ingredients could also be put inside parentheses.

    Lots of choices. 😀

    Becky

  7. I forgot about this thread! Yay email updates!

    Ann’s complaint actually isn’t much different from my original complaint. In a sentence fragment like “Host: Jeff Foxworthy”, the colon essentially means “is” or “and that person is”. In the sentence “He set out the following ingredients: flour, sugar, water and milk…” the colon means “and they are”, as in “He set out the following ingredients, and they are flour, sugar, water and milk.” (The original word “following” is obviously redundant here without the colon, but that’s the gist of it.) This is the same reason the annoying “Hosted by: Jeff Foxworthy” doesn’t work, because it actually means “Hosted by and that person is Jeff Foxworthy.”

    The reason the alleged sentence “He set out the following ingredients: flour, sugar, water and milk, and then went on to mix them together” looks odd (and is incorrect) is because a) the colon suggests that the next idea (i.e. the name of the ingredients) is the last idea of the sentence, and b) it really means “He set out the following ingredients, and they are flour, sugar, water and milk, and then went on to mix them together,” which is a run-on sentence, and is Biblical sounding to boot.

  8. Ann King

    Hi Becky,

    That was quick! Yes, there are lots of options. The problem is that the actual sentences I am dealing with are much more complex and involve lots of levels and subordinate clauses. The writer is non-native and writes on very erudite subjects. I’m trying to mentor him and improve his understanding of English structure so I was hoping to find a simple rule to explain why he cannot go from colon to semi-colon and then back to colon again to start a new string. I´ll keep looking and let you know if I find a linguistic explanation.
    Thanks,
    Ann

  9. Ann, I’m inclined to think that his problem, then, has more to do with misunderstanding the comma or the conjunction. If he wants to treat material as parenthetical and keep going, then he needs to use the em dash or parentheses that will set it off completely. But by using a comma, it is as Wayne said — he’s giving the impression this next thing belongs with those others when it does not.

    Sounds like he needs some basic sentence structure help. I wonder if anything in my short series on the subject might help.

    If you find what you’re looking for, I would definitely be interested.

    Becky

  10. Wayne, thanks for jumping back into the conversation. I think you’re exactly right as to why the phrase following the list doesn’t work.

    Your idea to replace the colon with “is” is a good one. That would be especially helpful if someone is unsure about prepositions. It’s easy for me to say, Don’t use a colon after a preposition. It’s another thing altogether for someone to follow that guideline if they don’t have a clue which words fall into that classification.

    Becky

  11. Excellent blog!! Your explanations are amazingly clear. I love it!

    Actually, I found my way here as I was looking about for some intel on “Let’s be clear.” I’m reading a technical editing book now where the author loves to use, “Let’s be clear: All editing work …” That is, she always follows the expression with a colon — after which she always uses a capital letter (although what follows is usually a single, independent clause.) Is this fairly standard practice, IYO?

    Anyway, thanks for this amazing blog. I’ve bookmarked it and I’ll return often.

  12. Thanks for your kind comments about Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

    I double checked Chicago Manual of Style to answer your question about capitalization after a colon. Good catch on your part. No capitalization is required unless the colon “introduces two or more sentences,” a speech in dialogue (common in plays), or “an extract” (a line pulled out of a text).

    I guess if your editor-author is following her “Let’s be clear” with a line from a text, then yes, it would be capitalized, but it would also have quotation marks.

    Let me know if I can be of any more help.

    Becky

  13. Thanks, Becky! That was great. I’m not sure why, but when I read I get a bit snarky when I see colons and semi-colons abused. lol Thanks again!!!

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