Friday, November 2, 2012

Punctuation 101: The Colon

by Jill Williamson

It's time for another punctuation lesson. I know... boring! But I see colons misused often in the manuscripts of new writers, along with semicolons, dashes, and ellipses. I promise to post only one punctuation lesson a month.

Today's lesson: The Colon


How do you know whether or not to capitalize the first word following a colon? Always have the word be lowercase except in the following circumstances:

1. If the first word is a proper noun.
Ex: The people who should be on the bus are the following: Mark, Christa, Drew, and Kelley.

2. If the colon precedes a definition or a direct quote.
Ex: When Christy got angry at Karen, Jill told her not to Jake out: An act or instance of turning into a werewolf. (Inspired by the book Twilight.)
Ex: The poignant words of Douglas Adams state: “Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

3. If the colon comes before two or more related sentences.
Ex: Robert had three options: He could walk the six miles to the library. He could call someone and beg a ride. Or he could just take Grandma Nan’s car.

4. If the colon introduces dialogue lines in a speech or drama.
Ex: Juliette: Then, window, let day in, and let life out.
Romeo: Farewell, farewell! One kiss and I'll descend.

Where to use a colon
A colon means as follows. It's used to introduce something (or a series of things).

1. Use a colon after a complete sentence to direct attention to a list.
Ex: Marcia’s daily workout was supposed to include at least the following: twenty sit-ups, ten push-ups, and fifteen minutes of cardio.
Ex: Give us the following construction materials: wood, hammers, and nails.
Ex: This summer our family plans to visit four western states: ArizonaUtahColorado, and New Mexico.

2. Use a colon after a complete sentence to direct attention to an appositive: A word or phrase that means the same thing. Appositives are common in fiction.
Ex: Shelby was shocked at what she saw: her reflection.
Ex: We found Fluffy sleeping in her favorite spot: the tree in the backyard.
Ex: There is one obstacle I must conquer before graduation: passing all my classes.

3. Use a colon after a complete sentence to direct attention to a quotation.
Ex: Consider the words of Mother Theresa: “Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted, for having someone to call their own.”

**Note: These rules are for writing books. My source is the Chicago Manual of Style. If you're writing articles, some of the rules are a bit different. Refer to the Associated Press Stylebook if you are writing articles.


  1. Thank you, Jill!! I was just wondering about this and the semicolon a day or to ago. :D

    1. You're welcome! I'll get to the semicolon soon. :-)

  2. Not boring, helpful! I always have trouble with colons and semicolons. But I also have this weird's kind of like as I read the sentence (or write it) in my head, I feel the "rhythm" and that helps me know where commas, semicolons, etc. go. Yeah, it's crazy, I know...

  3. Jill, this is so much help! Punctuation is something we all need to learn!

    1. Yeah... I wish they made Schoolhouse Rock cartoons for all types of punctuation. Nobody teaches like Schoolhouse Rock!

  4. Thank you so much for this! And this is totally not boring! I was wondering about this not that long ago and am so happy for it!

  5. Hey this is pretty helpful! I'm definitely not so afraid to use colon's in fiction anymore, especially now that I see how the can be useful in something other than non-fiction. :)

  6. I look at punctuation posts and go 'bleh, really?', but now I've learnt when to capitalise after a colon, so I can't actually complain. =)

  7. This was super helpful! Colons and semicolons always confuse me a bit, but this helped clear things up.

  8. Could you do next months punctuation lesson on semi-colons? It would be so helpful :)

    1. Yep! Next month will be semicolons, then I'll do dashes and ellipses together, I think.