Online Writing Lab

Colon Use

The colon is one of the most misused punctuation marks in writing.  Most beginning writers know that it is used with a list, but many are not aware of the other times it is used; for instance, the colon should be used after an independent clause.   The following rules dictate when to use a colon:

Rule #1: Use a colon after an independent clause and before a list.

Examples:

  • I bought several items at the store: milk, eggs, bread, and fruit. 
  • I am enjoying my classes this semester: English 121, Psychology 101, and History 225.

Notice how there is an independent clause preceding the colon in the above sentences.  In the following sentences, there is not an independent clause, so it would not be correct to use the colon:

  • Incorrect: I bought several items at the store such as: eggs, bread, and fruit. 
  • Incorrect: I am enjoying my classes this semester, which are: English 121, Psychology 101, and History 225.

Rule #2: Use a colon after an independent clause and before a quotation.

Examples:

  • The writing tutor gave me some great advice on my essay: “Make sure everything in the essay relates to the thesis statement.”
  • My poetry instructor regularly used her favorite quote from Robert Frost: “Nothing gold can stay.”

Rule #3: Use a colon between two independent clauses when the second clause emphasizes or explains the first.

Examples:

  • My grandfather gave me some great advice: he told me to get a good education and always work hard.
  • I always recommend the local Italian restaurant to visitors: it offers an extensive menu and the prices are reasonable.

Note: Colons are also used after salutations in business writing. 

Examples:

  • Dear President Robinson:
  • To Whom It May Concern: