Writing wrongs #7: how’s your colon? Part 2

In part 1, I put semicolons in their place (and got a bit excited about cheese). In part 2, I’m taking a look at their closest relation: the colon.

It’s easy to confuse the two ­– they sure do look alike – but how they’re used is quite different. I think of a colon as an introducer, a signpost that says the thing that follows will explain, conclude, expand or offer an example of whatever has come before it.

They can be used to introduce a list:

There are three dog breeds that never fail to make me smile: dachshunds, springer spaniels, and miniature schnauzers.

Or introduce a quote, extract or bulleted list in the way I just did above. Be careful not to use a colon when the material following it completes the sentence preceding it.

For example:

[Incorrect usage]
Three dog breeds that never fail to make me smile are: dachshunds, springer spaniels, and miniature schnauzers.

You can’t use a colon here because the material after the colon is essential to the sentence preceding it. “Three dog breeds that never fail to make me smile are” doesn’t make sense on its own.

Where people often trip up is when they want to use a colon in place of a linking word, such as namely, for instance, because, or as follows.

There’s one thing I’ve learnt working in a cinema: people are gross.
After emerging from the tunnel into the light she knew what she wanted: dinner.
There were more than enough clothes to go around, but everything was available in two colours: black and white.

One of the most noticeable differences between clauses that follow colons and those that follow semicolons is the former don’t have to contain verbs (as in ‘dinner’ or ‘black and white’), and they don’t have to be standalone sentences, although they can be (‘people are gross’).

Colons have other uses to. They might separate a title from a subtitle:

Head Meet Wall: Tales from a Frustrated Author

Or introduce direct speech:

I looked up at Ariel and whispered: “Can I stroke your tail?”

Those two little dots can do quite a lot, especially when you know how to use them correctly.

If your work is in need of a good colonic, please get in touch. I promise to be gentle.