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colon

The correct and incorrect uses for colons are outlined below.

The colon may be used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction if the second clause explains, illustrates or expands upon the first. In such sentences a semicolon would also be correct, but less effective:

  • Put most simply, the colon looks forward or anticipates: it gives readers an extra push toward the next part of the sentence. —The Canadian Writer’s Handbook
  • We are now at the point when an awakening bitterness follows a night of intoxication: an ebb of retribution now follows in the wake of a flood-tide of railway construction. —Arthur Meighen

A colon may also be used between two clauses in antithesis:

  • Man proposes: God disposes.

The work of the colon could have been done by a period or even a comma in the above example.

Annunciatory function

The colon is used primarily to introduce the words that follow it. It introduces a formal quotation or a formal statement:

  • The first sentence of the circular was unequivocal: "The purpose of this circular is to announce the termination of the policy respecting federally administered prices."
  • Simply put, the directive says this: Employees may no longer smoke in any area of the building.

Short quotations or declarations, however, are usually introduced by a comma.

  • Churchill once said, “Canada is the linchpin of the English-speaking world.”
  • Ask yourself, Can I afford this?

The colon is also used for the question-and-answer format, to introduce dialogue and in transcriptions:

  • Some Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

The colon introduces a list (but see “Misuse” below):

  • There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

The colon can be used to introduce vertical lists, even if the series is a complement or object:

  • The teleworking issues before the working group included:
    • human resources
    • technology
    • space and accommodation
    • financial implications

However, when the listed items are complements or objects, it is better to use an introductory phrase ("the following," “as follows,” “as illustrated,” etc.) before the colon.

  • The teleworking issues before the working group included the following:

Other uses

In expressions of time:

  • The shuttle will arrive at 3:45 p.m.

In business letters and printed speeches, a colon follows the salutation:

  • Dear Mr. Fox:

However, in personal letters, the colon is usually replaced by a comma:

  • Dear Susan,

The colon is used to separate titles from subtitles. It is followed by a single space:

  • Canada: A Story of Challenge

In references to books, plays, etc., colons separate chapter and verse, volume and page and act and scene, with no space on either side of the colon:

  • Numbers 7:11
  • History of Upper Canada, II:791
  • Fortune and Men’s Eyes, I:i

In bibliographic references, location and name of publisher are separated by a colon. The colon is followed by a single space:

  • Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press

Misuse

Do not place a colon at the end of a title or heading standing on a separate line from the text it introduces.

With horizontal lists, do not place a colon between a verb and its complement or object, or between a preposition and its object:

  • Incorrect: The three things Absalom hates the most are: peas, reptiles and the dark.
    Correct: The three things Absalom hates the most are peas, reptiles and the dark.
  • Incorrect: The subjects covered included: bonds, mutual funds and global investments.
    Correct: The subjects covered included bonds, mutual funds and global investments.
  • Incorrect: The memo was sent to: directors, section managers and human resources managers.
    Correct: The memo was sent to directors, section managers and human resources managers.

Do not place a colon after such as, including, for instance or for example:

  • Incorrect: The evacuees will need supplies such as: food, water and clothing.
    Correct: The evacuees will need supplies such as food, water and clothing.

Do not use a colon with another colon in the same sentence:

  • Incorrect: Joan visited the following countries: Italy, Germany and the most exotic: Morocco.
    Correct: Joan visited the following countries: Italy, Germany and the most exotic, Morocco.

Do not use a colon followed by a dash (:—).

Further information

For more information on the use of the colon with numerical expressions and in reference matter, see the following articles: