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The DumbLittleMan Guide to Colon Use

Image via Creative Commons, Joe Loong’s Flickr photostream. (Source)

First, let is be known that we are talking about punctuation and not our friend embedded into our digestive system!

Following the success of the article The DumbLittleMan Guide to Comma Use the editor decided to put me back in the lions den and gave me the go ahead to write an article on the colon.

In the punctuation mark Christmas party, the colon would be considered an infrequent visitor: someone who pops their head in just to say hello and remind us, every now and again, that they still exist and working on trying to garner some backers to revive its fledgling career.

The colon was first introduced in the 16th century and is all but extinct in the 21st century.

9 Ways To Use The Colon

  1. To introduce a list
    The list is the colon’s bread and butter and the place you are most likely to see it used. For example:

“She had everything: looks, personality, brains, compassion and even a little money.”


  • To introduce direct speech
    The comma has really taken over this role, and many purists wouldn’t thank you for the colon here, however, its role here is merited:


“He strode confidently over to the two men, looked at each of them in turn: ‘You been picking apples from my tree,’he growled.”


  • When showing an example
    You will often see this used after the words for example, e.g., as follows. For example:


“You can do lots of things to increase your social status within the blogging community, for example: write lots of guest posts.”


  • To offer a conclusion
    The colon here is used to give us a conclusion to someone’s thoughts, actions or to give a closing statement.


“The fact that the blog had over 80,000 subscribers could mean only one thing: it was a great blog.”


  • To explain something more fully
    The use of the colon here is to give a little more detail about the preceding clause.


“He had become one of the most successful businessmen in the world: no wonder, he worked every hour he could.”


  • To Introduce a subtitle
    This is self explanatory, however, here is a short example:


Dumb Little Man: Tips For Life

  • As a substitution for a conjunction
    This is not used often in the English language but it can provide emphasis in a sentence and make it a little more gritty.

    “He gently held the back of her head, looked into her eyes, then kissed her: she didn’t resist.” (Think I’ll go write for Mills and Boon.)


  • To link independent clauses
    A colon might be used to link independent clauses that are closely related to each other or if the second clause is a continuation of the first clause.


“The editor, Jay White, had only one decision to make: whether or not to publish the article.”


  • To Introduce a question
    A comma may be used to set up a question however a lot of writers still use the colon.


“All the readers seemed to be asking one thing: was he talking rubbish?”

Other familiar uses of the colon
Oh yes, this versatile punctuation mark has a few more tricks up its sleeve and is used in a few other ways, which you will be familiar with.

Time colon – The time colon is a way to separate the hours from the unites when presenting the time. For example: Flight 1047 will be leaving at 23:45

Maths colon – The colon here can be used in several ways. One way is to use it in ratios or odds. For example: DumbLittleMan readers from the US outnumber readers from the UK by 12:1

Letter colon – This is mainly a practice in the US. Business letters will use a colon after addressing their reader. For example: Dear sirs:, Dear Sir or Madam:

Stageplay colon – If you’ve ever seen a written stage play you will be familiar with this use of the colon:

Tom: The world is a stage!
Dick: Is that so?
Tom: Yes, but the play is badly cast.

Biblical colon – You will often see this when biblical quotes are being used in text. For example: Matthew 7:1

When not to use the colon
We have looked at a lot of ways where the colon should be used correctly. As with most punctuation marks there will always be a few times when it is used incorrectly.

The main rule with colon use is:

The preceding clause should be able to stand on its own and make complete sense, if it does not a colon should not be used. For example, look at these two sentences:

1. The secret recipe contained: curry powder, chili powder and a little thyme

2. The secret recipe contained some unusual ingredients: curry powder, chili powder and a little thyme.

Sentence one has the clause ‘The secret recipe contained.’ This, on its own, would not make sense, so a colon should not be used here. Instead, a comma would replace the colon.

Sentence two has the clause ‘The secret recipe contained some unusual ingredients.’ This, on its own would make sense as a sentence on its own, so a colon can be used here.

Colons are a great tool to use when writing and its use is fast becoming redundant. However, I believe it still has its place and should be a main tool in your writing toolbox.

Written on 12/04/2009 by Steven Aitchison. Steven is the Author of Change Your Thoughts and works as an alcohol and drugs counselor. He has a BSc in Psychology and has a passion for studying belief formation, thought processes and values and principles. His blog focuses on personal development through changing your thoughts but covers the whole personal development field. Photo Credit: Jay White
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