Colons

A colon, like the comma and the semicolon, is a joiner.

 

Think of it as a kind of connective gesture towards what's coming next. If you were reading a sentence out loud, when you got to the colon you might pause and raise your hand in front of you, ready to count off what comes next on your fingers because what comes next is, more often than not, a list.

For example, you might say, "I have three favorite television shows: Parks and Recreation, Friday Night Lights, and Top Gear." But here's the kicker: for a number of reasons, you'd never say, "My three favorite television shows are: CSI, NCIS, and SVU." For one thing, you'd be wrong about that. But more importantly, a colon can only follow an independent clause, and no matter which way you say it, "My three favorite television shows are" simply isn't one.

 A colon doesn't always have to precede a list, though. For example, you would be right to write, "Facing the rapacious zombie, Deputy Grimes had a choice: kill or be killed." Of course, you would be wrong to write, "Facing the rapacious zombie, Deputy Grimes's only choice was: kill or be killed." This colon would break the full sentence rule, and you should just chuck it entirely.

The important thing to remember here is that a colon must connect a full sentence to something that is directly related to it, whether it's an explanatory list or clarifying statement. You'll notice that, as a reader, you almost always have an idea of what's coming after the colon because it explains, expands, or elaborates on the complete sentence that came before. It's as if there were a little narrator inside the sentence, waving his hands and screaming, "Now I'm going to tell you what Deputy Grimes's choice was!" It gives the reader a little breather before the sentence launches into its elaboration.

We like to think of the colon as kind of a wait for it… . Just with a little less personality.

 

Examples

"Scrooge McDuck has one major flaw in his personality: greed."

The colon in this sentence is used to make a pronouncement about Scrooge McDuck, specifically that he's greedy. We find it more troubling that he's a millionaire who doesn't own a pair of pants.

"Only five actors have won back-to-back Academy Awards: Tom Hanks, Spencer Tracy, Luise Rainer, Katharine Hepburn, and Jason Robards."

We don't know about you, but we are positively shocked that Meryl Streep isn't on this list. We're not surprised that this list is introduced with a colon, however, since it's preceded by an independent clause. And here's an insider tip for you. If you can replace the colon in a list with the word namely, then using a colon is appropriate.

"Tom has only one rule in life: never eat anything bigger than your head."

Not even a burrito?! Here, the colon sets the reader up for a surprise. The sentence essentially says, Tom has only one rule in life—wait for it—never eat anything bigger than your head.

 

Common mistakes

There are two schools of thought regarding post-colon capitalization (sounds like an awful surgical procedure, doesn't it?). In general, it's a style issue that depends on what is following the colon.

Some grammarians recommend capitalizing the first word after a colon if it introduces something akin to a complete sentence.

The less conservative free spirits tell you to never capitalize after a colon. This rule is easier to follow… unless the first word is supposed to be capitalized in the first place (like, if it's a proper noun), you know to always leave it lowercase.

Think of a dash not as a casual gesture in a conversation, but as the movement of an actor hamming it up in a theater. The dash signals something's coming, but that thing is often much more exciting than a mere list or explanation. Reserve the dash for when your sentence would rather be a diva than a didact. The dash is also quicker, giving the reader less cause for pause.