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Listen Up: Here’s How to Use the Colon in your Writing

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If there’s any punctuation mark I tend to evangelize about, it’s the colon. Colons are versatile tools, but I’ve noticed that few students use them. Most people know they have something to do with lists, but colons can do so much more.

Here’s a brief guide to those two enigmatic dots.

A colon can be used to set up an expectation and then deliver. It’s like a magic trick: here’s the magician’s hand going into the hat…and here’s the rabbit! Let’s look at some examples.

“Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders where they grow.”

–Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

In the sentence above, the clause after the colon comes as an answer of sorts to the preceding clause. What are we willing to find? Small wonders where they grow.

Here’s another example of effective colon use:

“But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”

–Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

In addition to lists, you can use colons to introduce definitions, explanations, and quotations. You can use colons to separate the chapter and verse of biblical references and, uh, more obviously, the minutes from the hour (it’s 12:48 PM as I write this). Colons can be also used after a name as a salutation in a formal letter (Dear Mrs. Wong: I write to tell you about the joys of punctuation!). They can introduce dialogue in a play when placed after a character’s name, and they frequently appear in book titles (here’s one take on the “high tide of colonization”).

You can follow a colon with a full sentence, a list of words, or just one word. So versatile! There’s just one thing to keep in mind: a colon should only follow a full sentence.

Now go forth and use colons!

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