A colon is like any road sign; it signals that something is coming up and you need to pay attention.
- A colon signals a list.
Mary disliked her father-in-law: he smoked, he bragged, he belched, and he scratched his belly.
A management student should study the following courses: Human Resource Management, Finance, Accounting, and Organizational Behavior
Note: that the phrases "such as," "are," "including," or "for example" replace a colon in signaling a list.
Some of the courses a management student should have are Human Resource Management, Finance, Accounting, and Organizational Behavior.
- A colon signals and emphasizes a comment or explanation that follows.
Mary disliked visiting Gordon's father: she disapproved of his habits and his brutish behavior.
Mary's father-in-law began to question her affection for him: surely the huge life insurance policy he took out, along with his car blowing up, was no accident.
- A colon shows that a longer quotation is coming. ("Longer" usually means a quotation that is lengthy enough to be single-spaced and indented in the text, usually five typed lines or more.)
Tillie Olsen writes eloquently about the ways women have been silenced as writers through the centuries. In her book Silences, she does offer some hope:
More and more women writers in our century, primarily in the last two decades, are assuming as their right, too, fullness of work and family life. Their emergence is evidence of changing circumstances making possible for them what was not possible in the generations of women before.
Note: Shorter quotations that are incorporated into a sentence are introduced by a comma.
Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"
Tip: If you're using a colon after a quotation, place it outside of the quotation marks.
Readers are often transported when they read this line from Joy Harjo's "Eagle Poem": "To pray you open your whole self/To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon/To one whole voice that is you."
- A colon comes after the greeting in a business letter. If you use an "attention" line instead of a greeting, the colon comes after the word "attention."
Dear Mr. Grunman:
Attention: Consumer Representative
Tip: Colons should not separate a verb from its direct object(s) or a preposition from its object(s) (see the "note" under #1). Incorrect: We wanted: to shop, eat out, go to a movie, and get home late (separating a verb from its objects). To correct that sentence, simply remove the colon. Also incorrect: The young girl excelled at: drawing, painting, running, swinging, and horseback riding (separating a pronoun from its objects). To correct that sentence, simply remove the colon.