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Using the Colon

Can you spot errors in the use of the colon in any of the following sentences?

  1. Send check or money order to: 221 Barnwell Street, Columbus, GA 22234.

  2. The conference speakers who were chosen by the steering committee included: Sean Baldwin, Tiffany Chen, and Juan Vanelli.

  3. The three most important assets a hotel manager can have are: patience, charm, and intelligence.

  4. Applications should be submitted to this address: Post Office Box 322, Hartwell, FL 98204.

  5. The following employees have won awards for their proposals: Mark Jordan, Cynthia Meyers, and Deborah Hollowell.

The first three sentences misuse the colon, while the last two are correct.

You may remember from our earlier article on the use of the semicolon that we use that mark of punctuation most commonly between two independent clauses. (An independent clause is a group of words that can stand alone as a sentence. That is, it expresses a thought that is both grammatically and logically complete.)

The key difference between the colon and the semicolon is that while colons must have an independent clause in front of them, they do not have to have an independent clause after them. But the most important point to remember with regard to the colon is this: the only place in a clause where we should put a colon is a place where we could logically put a period. (See below, though, the Chicago Manual of Style exception regarding direct quotes below.)

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Sentences 1, 2, and 3 are incorrect, then, because in each case the colon is preceded by a group of words that is not logically complete. In other words, the colon is used where a period would never be logical:

  • Send check or money order to.

  • The conference speakers who were chosen by the steering committee included.

  • The three most important assets a hotel manager can have are.

In each of these examples, the information that is missing after the misused period is critical to the logical and grammatical integrity of the sentence itself. In other words, the correct choice is to use neither a period nor a colon:

  • Send check or money order to 221 Barnwell Street, Columbus, GA 22234.

  • The conference speakers who were chosen by the steering committee included Sean Baldwin, Tiffany Chen, and Juan Vanelli.

  • The three most important assets a hotel manager can have are patience, charm, and intelligence.

Sentences 4 and 5 can correctly use the colon because the information preceding the colon in each sentence is logically complete; that is, it could stand alone as a sentence. Notice that when we say these sentences aloud, we can hear our voices drop when we get to the colons just as our voices drop at the end of sentences:

  • Applications should be submitted to the following address.

  • The following employees have won awards for their proposals.

While we must have an independent clause on both sides of the semicolon, the colon may be followed by a single word or any group of words providing the information hinted at in the logically complete independent clause preceding it.

Sentences 4 and 5 provide us with good examples of colons preceded by independent clauses but followed by phrases. Sentence 4 is followed by an address, which is a phrase and certainly not an independent clause:

  • Applications should be submitted to the following address: Post Office Box 322, Hartwell, FL 98204.

In sentence 5, the colon is followed by a list, which is also a phrase:

  • The following employees have won awards for their proposals: Mark Jordan, Cynthia Meyers, and Deborah Hollowell.

Notice that while the independent clause in each of these sentences is complete grammatically (that is, we could put a period after the word proposals), it still leaves us wondering who won the awards. The colon is appropriate because the list gives us that information.

The situation gets a bit more complicated when we have two independent clauses and have to decide which mark of punctuation, the colon or the semicolon, is more appropriate. Consider these two sentences:

  • John has a serious problem; he is seeking professional help.

  • John has a serious problem: he does not know how to relax.

Both sentences contain two complete thoughts, but the relationship between the two clauses in each case is quite different. In the first sentence, the second clause merely adds to the thought expressed in the first clause. However, it does not answer the question hinted at in the first clause; we are still left wondering about the nature of John's problem.

In the second sentence we also have two independent clauses, but this time the relationship is different: the second clause fills in the information hinted at in the first. That is, it tells us John's problem.

Another time when the colon comes in handy is before certain direct quotations. If a quotation is introduced by an independent clause--especially if the quotation is, itself, an independent clause--we use a colon instead of a comma or a period. Notice that in this example both the quotation and the information introducing it are independent clauses:

  • The chairman was forceful in his pleas for help: "Everyone must do his or her part to make this company profitable in the third quarter."

Even when the quotation is not an independent clause, if a sentence precedes the quotation, then the colon is a better choice than a comma. Consider this example:

  • The sign at the campsite left no room for ambiguity: "Absolutely no littering!"

The Chicago Manual of Style—our style manual of choice—adds that the colon is often used before quotations longer than one complete sentence, even when the introductory text is not an independent clause. Here is an example:

  • As Aristotle asserted: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Of course, we frequently use colons after phrases when they are used as headings--such as after the words To, From, and Date in a memo--but here in this tip we are talking about the proper use of the colon in running text.

TEST YOURSELF

Add or delete colons where appropriate in the following sentences:

  1. Three projects will be completed during the next fiscal year the Smith Mountain Tunnel, the Marsh Springs Bridge, and the Simpson Island Connector.

  2. During the next fiscal year, we will complete the Smith Mountain Tunnel, the Marsh Springs Bridge, and the Simpson Island Connector.

  3. We were asked to send our letters of recommendation to 234 Miller Lane, Greenville, MO 29292.

  4. Everyone in the audience was appalled at the candidate's bluntness when he said: "My opponent is a crook."

ANSWERS

  1. Three projects will be completed during the next fiscal year: the Smith Mountain Tunnel, the Marsh Springs Bridge, and the Simpson Island Connector.
  2. correct
  3. correct
  4. Everyone in the audience was appalled at the candidate's bluntness when he said "My opponent is a crook."
    OR
    Everyone in the audience was appalled at the candidate's bluntness: "My opponent is a crook."

Copyright 2002 Get It Write