Colon: often misused, now explained

The colon (:) acts as a pointer that introduces a list of items or examples, or in formal writing, to explain the main clause. Generally, the colon gives more information about what has been said; it simply says ‘this is what I’m saying’ or ‘I mean’.

The colon is one of the most misused punctuation marks in English, the most noticeable being to separate nouns from verbs, verbs from objects or subject complements and prepositions from objects. This simply means we should not use the colon to interrupt the flow of a sentence such as:

  1. The main point is that: we love you.
  2. He was the best in: mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
  3. He likes fruits such as: mango, guava, pineapple, and orange.

 

Consequently, we use the colon for the following purposes:

  •   To introduce a list of items

A list of items is usually introduced by a colon, and this is apparently the most common use of the colon.

Examples:

  1. We ordered the following items: pencils, crayons, sheets of white paper, drawing boards, and markers.
  2. He brought up three major topics: climate, economics, and war.
  3. The family was asked to choose one of the following:

a. a car
b. a house
c. a yacht
d. a small plane

4. The resolutions are:

i. All board members must attend the conference.

ii. Anyone who fails to submit their proposal before the conference will be penalised.

iii. The choice of a new chairman is subject to the recommendation of the top management board.

Note: We do not generally capitalise the word after a colon in a list, unless it’s a proper noun. Also, the use of capital or small letters in initial words when we itemise with letters, numbers, etc. (as in 3 above) is optional. However, if each item is a complete sentence (as in 4 above), capitalise and end with appropriate punctuation.

(To know why ‘anyone’ is used with ‘their’ in ii above, read about singular ‘they’ here)

  • To introduce a quotation or direct speech

Before we write what someone said or what is seen somewhere, we can use a colon.

Examples:

  1. The article reads: ‘This is the best performance in a long time.’
  2. She opined: ‘When I do right, when I look bright, when I’m alright, that’s when I live life.’
  3. Justice Bola Ajibola once said:

The constitution lacks the strength and dexterity to make laws

in anticipation for the permutation and the combination of the

complexity of human dynamism…

Note: A colon is preferred to a comma when introducing a quotation with more than one sentence.

 

  • To explain or give information about a previous clause

A colon can be used to separate independent clauses, with the latter giving further information about the former. Each clause is independent, but the latter explains, paraphrases or illustrates the former.

Examples:

  1. Our local government secretariat is now renovated: it’s just like an oasis of luxury in a desert of want.
  2. Always remember the old saying: All’s well that ends well.

Note: If the succeeding part is a complete sentence and explains the first (as in 1), we do not need to capitalise. If it’s not a ‘direct’ continuation (as in 2), we can capitalise.

 

  • To introduce a subdivision or subtitle

We use this for further explanation of a word or group of words to make it clearer or to bring out the point we intend to explain.

Examples:

  1. Army: The army is an important part of any nation that intends to maintain its sovereignty and protects itself from external aggression. The army curbs internal crises when necessary, and protects all citizens from external attacks. However, there are some countries in the world that do not have armed forces, e.g. Costa Rica, Grenada, Nauru, Vatican City, and Tuvalu.
  2. The internet: many blessings and curses of an unavoidable phenomenon

Note: The general practice is that when what follows the colon is an explanation (with more than one sentence) or a subdivision of the first part, we can capitalise.

 

  • Used in time, ratio, Bible verse, correspondence and dialogue

Examples:

  1. 11:09 p.m.
  2. Ratio 10:1
  3. Matthew 3:7
  4. Attention: Non-payment of salary.
  5.  Asamoah: Did he really do that?                                                                                                                                      Kenny: That was the same question I asked.

 

On the whole, the colon is not meant to interrupt, but to give details. Look at these sentences:

  1. We have three options: we can join APC, we can go back to our party, or we can join KOWA.
  2. The three options are that: we can join APC, we can go back to our party, or we can join KOWA.
  3. These are the three options: we can join APC, we can go back to our party, or we can join KOWA.

Also read: Semicolon: understanding the uniqueness

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