All You Need To Know About The Colon

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Punctuation rules are the ones that are most commonly ignored or overlooked when it comes to correct spelling and grammar. The common spell checking functions of word processing software doesn’t detect punctuation errors in most cases either.


Luckily, pays attention to your commas, spacing with regard to punctuation and the like as well. Of course, you can also have a look at these simple rules on how to use the colon:


When And How To Use The Colon

Colons differ from semicolons in their meaning and thus should never be used interchangeably. While a semicolon links two independent sentences, the colon carries the meaning of “that is to say”.


Colons are used in the following cases:

  • introducing a list of items
  • as a starting point or indication for direct speech
  • after the salutation in a formal letter or e-mail
  • linking two independent sentences if the second one explains or expands the first


Colons are used to introduce a single item or a list of items. For example:

If you go to the store, we need the following: bread, eggs, and cling wrap.


In literary and fictional work, the colon also functions as the indication or starting point of direct speech. However, this usage is widely regarded as rather basic and is thus often omitted in favor of a more elaborate way to include direct speech in works of fiction.

My momma always said: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
 - Forest Gump (1994)


While in informal style it is completely acceptable to use a comma (or nothing at all) to end the salutation of a letter or e-mail, the practices for business and formal mail is different. Here, it is more common and preferred to use a colon.

Dear Mr. Smith:
Dear Sir or Madam:

More on proper greetings in business mail.


Initially, we have stated that the colon and semicolon can not be used in each other’s place. However, in some instances, a colon can replace a semicolon. Linking two independent clauses is usually done by a semicolon. However, in case of the second clause illustrating, extending, explaining or paraphrasing the first one, a colon can be used as well. Consider the following example:

She had it coming to her: you do not pull a dog's tail.


A colon should not be used:

  • after a verb in a sentence, even when followed by a list of items
  • to replace a semicolon when the second clause does not extend, explain or illustrate the first one


In some instances, there is no need or reason to use a colon though. One is when a list or series of items is introduced after a verb. In these cases, a proper sentence should be formed instead of using a colon.

Correct: I need: more time, a proper work space, and more sleep.
Incorrect: I need more time, a proper work space, and more sleep.


Also, other than in the few instances stated above, a colon should not be used to replace a semicolon.

Correct: We can go to the beach later on: however, I think the weather will change soon.
Incorrect: We can go to the beach later on; however, I think the weather will change soon.


Other Rules That Apply When Using a Colon

There are some other grammatical rules that have to be taken into account when using a colon. Some of them are mandatory to follow, others are actually optional and left to the user’s preference or the circumstance and context.



Should the first element following a colon be capitalized? It depends. Here are some more or less distinct do’s and don’ts that should help you distinguish the cases in which the first element after a colon should or should not be written with a capital first letter, or when it’s up to you.

Do not capitalize: Do capitalize: Optional:
  • the first item in a list (unless it’s a proper noun)
  • the beginning of a sentence
  •  when introducing direct speech using a colon
  • if the information after the colon requires two or more complete sentences
  • using an actual list of items (numbered, bullet points, etc.)

However: be consistent!


Other punctuation

One interesting question is the one on how to end a sentence or list that contains or is introduced by a colon. Usually, the typical closing punctuation mark is used when the colon was used in a proper sentence.


When it comes to bullet point or numbered lists, using a punctuation mark like a comma, period, question mark or exclamation point at the end of each listed item – IF it’s a sentence or clause – is optional. Depending on your preference as a writer or the demands of your editor, boss or client, you can either add commas and periods or leave them out. The only real rule here is to be consistent.



This matter mainly concerns longer quotations. If a long quote ins introduced with a colon, many authors and editors prefer to use an indentation for the whole, following quote (instead of quotation marks).


In his book series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote:

In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.