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Colons in the English Language: The Complete Guide

Colons in the English Language: The Complete Guide

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Have you been using your punctuation marks properly?

If not, then you must have had caused a heart attack to a grammar pedant or two.

Well, no one actually blames you for that. Don’t worry.

In fact, punctuations are “all Greek” symbols to many normal human beings, both historically and idiomatically speaking.

So, if you think you often get mystified by how your colons, semicolons, and commas work, then you’ve come to the right site.


When should we use a colon?

Several rules dictate colon placements in written text.

Here are the most common ones, though: linking clauses, introducing a serial list and quotations, and writing dialogues.

See how I used it in one of its functions above?

Moreover, it is also used in salutations and greetings, book titles, bible chapters and verses, dialogues, and time.

Read on to fully understand its other usages.


What is the purpose of a colon?

The crowded nature of old texts essentially gave birth to punctuations as a means to clarify the writer’s message.

This quite intimidating, yet really humble punctuation called “colon” is of Ancient Greek origin, which means “a limb” or “a part of a whole”.

It used to refer to a clause or a sentence part rather than a punctuation mark.

Thanks to the Christians who were fond of passing on colon-loaded bible verses, the colon has survived up until modern times.

A colon, the punctuation that consists of a dot positioned vertically on top of another dot, generally functions like an arrow sign in texts.

It links specified information to an introductory independent clause which means it has an emphatic clarification effect.

A colon’s main job is to specify a general idea introduced by an initial clause, which can be done either horizontally or vertically.

Usually, the first part is a vague introduction to the more specific example or explanation that can be found in the second part.

This punctuation is also weaker and less terminal than a period, but stronger than either a comma or semicolon.


Using the colon properly

The colon can be used in several ways, and this section enumerates its sentential and other common usages.


Colons to link sentences together

As briefly used and explained earlier, colons can be used to tether two sentence parts and specify a general idea.

The rule of thumb, though, is that the first clause needs to be an independent one.

This clause must not end in a preposition or a verb, especially “including” because doing so would yield an ungrammatical sentence.

Style guides have not fully agreed on whether to generally use an uppercase in introducing the second clause or not.

But, as language ought to be both prescriptive and descriptive, let’s just leave the capitalization issue behind.

More importantly, let’s just not forget the capitalization rule if the first word is either a proper noun, a capitalized abbreviation, or the pronoun “I”.

Let’s look at some more specific examples below.


Colons in Series

Serial listing can be done either horizontally or vertically.

For a vertical list, the first letters may or may not be capitalized.

We may also mentally read the colon as “and they are” or “as follows”.

Although word typing tools automatically encode an uppercase letter after a bullet point, this is actually optional.

We have three newborn puppies: Luna, India, and Zulu.

These are the things I need to buy for next weekend’s camping: a new hammock, an insect repellent, and a sunscreen lotion.

I have yet to buy the following ingredients:



(E)evaporated milk


Colons with clauses and phrases

In connecting a second clause or some set of words via the colon, it means that the reader should expect an emphasized idea.

This idea is, again, a more specific version of the introductory independent clause which aims to elaborate or define further.

I have finally decided: I’m never going back to my hometown.
When mom already says my complete name, it can only mean one thing: I’m in trouble.
Punctuation rules can be described in two words: algebraic and Greek-like.


Colons in Block Quotations

Block quotations, or a set of direct statements written in verbatim and paragraph-form for the sake of referencing ideas.

These are normally indented from the introductory clause for clarification and emphasis.

One of my students once said:

Success is analogous to planting. When burying the seeds, they have to be buried neither too deep nor too shallow to allow enough room for light, water, and air to get in.


Colons & Dialogues

Dialogues or transcripts between or among character names are also normally signaled by the semicolon.

We do this to indicate the transition of speakers in the script, and to separate the speaker from the speech delivered.

Dan: Hey, sis! Mom has been looking for you all night. Ruby: Yeah, yeah. I know I’m in trouble.


Other Common Usages

Colons are also used in other more common areas such as in business letter greetings, between the bible chapter and verse, book title elements, and in writing time.


Using a colon in formal letters

Formal business letters typically require a salutation before the official message.

Colons, more formal than commas, are used in greeting higher-ranking individuals.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:
Dear Sir or Madam:
To Whom It May Concern:

However, for more casual letters, commas would already suffice.

Dear Jerry, Dear Stacy,

The usage of the colon is indicative of a more official and formal tone, and it, therefore, has to be used depending on the message intent.

Colons in Bible Chapters and Verses

Referring back to the Christians who were keen on passing the prophets’ teachings in texts, colons were used to separate the book chapter and the verses.

Bible books are written in the order of book title, chapter, colon without spaces, and the verse number.

The colon, therefore, helps in separating numerical entities which would then guide a reader of the exact location of a specific biblical text.

Revelation 2:3 talks about perseverance and patience.
The message in John 3:16-20 focuses on love and sacrifice.

Colons and book titles/subtitles

Books may have a main title and a subtitle which are also separated by a colon.

The colon also acts as a specifying agent in this case.

If you want to have an in-depth yet entertaining understanding of punctuations, I recommend reading Actually, The Comma Goes Here: A Practical Guide to Punctuation by Lucy Cripps.

Colons and Time (timestamps)

Timestamps are written in hours, minutes, and seconds format, and they are also separated by colons.

Similar to the function colons do to biblical books, they aid in the distinction and specification of numeric symbols, too.

The footage was taken last night at exactly 21:55:07.

Timestamps are also highly valuable elements when doing transcription services because they serve as codes when the speech is exactly delivered.

Therefore, these tiny punctuation marks are one of the main reasons why movies have their subtitles.

How and When to Use Colons


Semicolons vs. Colons

Although we tend to get confused between these two punctuation bullies, they’re not that difficult to tell apart.

Semicolons mainly connect two independent clauses by either omitting coordinating conjunctions or by introducing a second clause with a conjunctive adverb.

I hate music; I know music doesn’t like me either.
Sally badly wants to move to Atlanta; however, her parents don’t like this idea.

It is also used to separate a complex list that already contains inner commas.

Gertrude is planning to go to Taipei, Taiwan; Osaka, Japan; and Hanoi, Vietnam.

While semicolons aim to connect two independent clauses or clarify a complex list, colons aim to direct the reader to a more detailed explanation or examples.


Colons in American vs. British English

There are two major differences in the colon usage between American and British English.

While time notation in American English is marked by colons, British time is marked by periods instead, especially with the 12-hour format.

AmE: See you at 6:30 tomorrow!
BrE: See you at 6.30 tomorrow!

The other notable distinction is with the capitalization rule after the colon.

British English supports the standard non-capitalization of the second clause, unless, of course, when it starts with proper nouns or abbreviations.

However, in American English, the second part may be capitalized especially when it is either an independent clause or composed of multiple clauses.

AmE: Winter last year was horrible: We had a road accident.
BrE: Winter last year was horrible: we had a road accident.

Although they have a couple of differences, both agree that colons must never be preceded by white space.

The white space must come after the colon instead.

Moreover, no other punctuations must be used directly before or after the colon.



To sum, even though colons may tend to perplex both native and non-native writers alike, their purpose is pretty straightforward.

Their only mission is to provide readers a thorough elucidation of ideas clearly and definitively.

So, never bite your nails again the next time you need to make another colon-decision.