The ultimate guide to the colon (of the punctuation variety)

There are three types of colon in this world. One’s a Central American currency, one’s up your bum, and one’s a punctuation mark. This post is about the latter.

When it comes to grammar, I have a lot of time for the colon. It’s a dramatic little thing whose function it is to warn readers that something important is coming. It’s not quite as theatrical as a drum roll, but it’s certainly as commanding as a firm finger-point.

What is a colon?

A colon is a punctuation mark used to introduce things.

How to use a colon:

  1. To introduce a list, like this one.
  2. To separate two parts of a sentence (known as clauses), in which the second is an explanation of the first. E.g. She was extraordinarily tall: over six feet, but her hands were tiny.
  3. To introduce a quote within a sentence. E.g. PC Ripper said: “The woman died accidentally in the early hours of the morning.”

How not to use a colon:

In place of a semicolon.

A lot of people think colons and semicolons are interchangeable. They are not. Semicolons, while similar, serve a different function to colons.

What is the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

They may share the same key on your keyboard, but the difference between a colon and semicolon is more significant than whether or not you can be bothered to hold shift.

A colon is used to introduce something. We use a semicolon to separate two different but related clauses.

To understand the point of the semicolon, it’s helpful to remember why we have punctuation. It gives sentences pace, rhythm and emphasis. Think of the semicolon as the love-child of a comma and a full stop. A semicolon asks us to pause a fraction longer than a comma and about the same length as a full stop – but without the air of finality. We want drama but not too much of it.

Colon:
She was extraordinarily tall: over six feet, but her hands were tiny.

Semicolon:

She was extraordinarily tall; she would have pursued basketball if it wasn’t for her absurdly small hands.

So there we have it. You could live the rest of your life without ever using a semicolon again and no one would even care (or notice, probably). But without the colon, how would you ever introduce anything? How would you warn your reader that you’re about to reveal something important? How would you prepare them for a quotation?

It’s like Woody Harrelson once said:


“The state of the health of the individual is equivalent to the state to the health of the colon.”

He was talking about punctuation, right?

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