How to Use a Colon


There are three general ways to use a colon: to introduce a list; to separate numerals in references and time; and to separate a title from a sub-title.

ONE: Introducing a List

The sentence above is an example of using a colon to introduce a list. Just think of a colon as shorthand for the phrases “that is,” “such as,” or “for example.” A colon used this way promotes both clarity and economy.

A colon can also introduce an appositive: a noun or noun phrase that describes or explains the noun or noun phrase that immediately comes before. The previous sentence is an example of this usage.

TWO: Separating Numerals In References And Time

Some books, like the Bible, are divided into chapter and verse: numbers separated by a colon. (That sentence is another example of a colon introducing an appositive.)

Genesis 1:1 in the King James Bible reads, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

A colon is also used to separate units of time: hours from minutes, minutes from seconds, seconds from hundredths of a second, and so on. I’m writing this post at 8:44 AM as expressed on a twelve-hour clock. On a 24-hour clock, the time is 08:44. Actually, it’s now 08:45. You get the idea.

THREE: Introducing A Subtitle

The following is a list of the stack of books on my desk waiting to be shelved.

Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts On Words, Women, Places by Ursula K. Le Guin

Robert’s Rules of Order: Newly Revised 11th Edition

Harbrace College Handbook: 1984 Printing, With the new MLA documentation style.

This last title is my go-to reference for explaining grammatical issues, such as how to use a colon effectively.

There are certainly other ways to use colons, but these are the main three. Try them; you may find them useful.

Please let me know: Did you find this post helpful?

4 thoughts on “How to Use a Colon

  1. Yes, helpful! I often use a colon for introducing a list, then divide the items on the list with semi-colons. I was never sure whether the last item should have an “and” before it, though it sounded uncomfortable without it. If I were writing that list without introduction, and separating the items with commas, the “and” would take the place – most often – of that final comma. I didn’t want to change format by leaving out the semi-colon, but wondered about using both. Your example shows that it works well with the semi-colon followed by “and.” Thank you!

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