Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Tips: The Colon

We're back with the assistance of Punctuation Made Simple.  Today's lesson is about the colon. 

Apparently, the colon is one of the easiest punctuations marks you can use.  It only does one thing in prose:  it introduces. It can introduce just about anything: a word, a phrase, a sentence, a quotation, or a list.
I've already given you a couple examples above; here are some more.



Megan has only one thing on her mind: publication.
Megan has only one thing on her mind: her book,  Never Eighteen. (Like how I squeeze a mention of my book in there?  If you click on it, you can pre-order it, hint, hint)
Megan has only one thing on her mind: she wants her book to be successful.
Megan has three things on her mind: publication, marketing, and sales.

The colon in these four sentences introduce various kinds of things: a word, a phrase, a sentence, and a list.  A colon gives special emphasis to whatever you’re introducing because readers must first come to a stop, and so they pay more attention to it.
If you aren’t sure whether you need a colon in a particular sentence, here is a handy test: read the sentence, and when you reach the colon, substitute the word namely; if the sentence reads through smoothly, then there’s a good chance that you do need a colon. For example, you can read any of the example sentences above with the word namely in the place of the colon:

Megan has only one thing on her mind, namely publication.

Megan has only one thing on her mind, namely her book,  Never Eighteen.
Megan has only one thing on her mind, namely she wants her book to be successful.
Megan has three things on her mind, namely publication, marketing, and sales.

This test may not work 100 percent of the time, but it is a fairly reliable indicator of whether you need a colon.

One word of caution: do not place the colon after the verb in a sentence, even when you are introducing something, because the verb itself introduces and the colon would be redundant. For example, you would not write:
My three favorite books are: To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Handmaid's Tale, and Lord of the Flies.
The colon is not necessary in the sentence above because the verb does the work of introducing the three books. You can check this sentence by using the test we just mentioned. It would seem awkward to read this sentence, “My three favorite books are namely, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Handmaid's Tale, and Lord of the Flies .” The fact that the sentence is awkward when you read it with namely is an indication that the colon is unnecessary. Remember, the colon shows emphasis and, therefore, you want the reader to stop at the colon before preceding on to whatever it is you are introducing.
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