A Primer for Users of the Colon

Here are ways of using a colon one can find by looking for different uses in writing in print and on the web. The examples are my own:

1. Following a statement (most often an independent clause) that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series

  • Professor Fienberg considers an example of this kind of narrative strategy in the prose works of Mary Roth: (introduce a quotation)
  • There is little doubt that the athletes knew exactly what to do following the competition: hydrate, eat carbohydrates, and get plenty of rest (an explanation)
  • The proper ingredients are essential to making an authentic burrito: beans, rice, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes (a word or group of words that rename a noun or a pronoun)

2. So far so good: he would begin again first thing in the morning (after an element which is not an independent clause, but merely a fragment)

3. Dear Professor Garrity: (After salutation in a formal letter)

4. Genesis 1:1 or Judges 16: Sampson (Between the chapter and verse numbers in a biblical citation)

5. Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature (Between the title and subtitle of a book or article)

6. 3:00 a.m. (Between numbers or groups of numbers in expressions of time. Though the British convention is to use a period instead of a colon: We left the pub at 5.45 in the morning. And the use of 24-hour time does not include the colon: our shift begins at 0730 and ends at 1700.)

7. 1:5 (in ratios)

8. Messenger: Occasions drew me early to this city,
And as the gates I entered with sun-rise,
The morning trumpets proclaimed
Thorough each high street. Little I had dispatched. . . .

(To separate dramatic characters from dialogue in a script. from John Milton, Samson Agonistes)

9 . Date: December 30, 2013
To: Dr. Frank Smith
From: Dr. Julio Fernandez
Re: Fall 2012 Plagiarism Cases

(In the header to a memo)

10. Without hesitation, and with a surprising lack of decorum, the bishop chastised the small group behind the pew: “There are reasons why you are to be held accountable and I will explain them to you when you have left the church grounds. (an independent clause introducing a quotation or spoken text in a dialog. If the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead.)

Style Conventions for the Colon

Should there be one or two spaces following a colon?

  • Word processing software makes the answer one. However, if you choose two, be consistent.

Where does a colon go after quoted text?

  • When a colon appears after quoted text, put it after the closing quotation mark.

Do I start the text following the colon with either an upper-case or lower-case letter?

  • It depends who you ask. The Associated Press and MLA say to include the capital letter. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon. Again, be consistent with the option you choose.