Now: the colon             Next: the semi-colon

The more ponderous the publication, the more likely you are to see colons and their half-cousins, semi-colons, in the text. When I review a manuscript, I put up a yellow flag when I see the first colon because this little mark of punctuation is misused so often.

The announcer.

The quickest track to correct colon use is understanding what it is for. A colon is like a railroad crossing that is flashing red. It says “Stop!” and then it lets you go on, just as the crossing sign does once the train has rumbled past.

The colon says, “Look at what’s coming!”

Now you know all about colons. All you need is some examples, and it will become perfectly clear to you.

There are three reasons the correct use of the colon is important: (1) it can make you look more learned than you are; (2) it can help make your writing clearer and stronger; (3) your writing will look more proper, more scholarly.

Note: In the above example there was a complete sentence for each number before and after the colon. A nice touch.

(In a page 1 story in the Sept 23 2008 Wall Street Journal):
“But differences remain on two big items: possible limits on executive compensation at firms taking advantage of the bailout; and changes to bankruptcy law that would let judges adjust the terms of mortgages.”

(Same edition of the Wall Street Journal, “Health Journal,” by Melinda Beck)
“But those cancers are relatively rare. What’s far more common are prostate cancers: 230,000 are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and they’re a ready source of revenue for the new centers.”

Mistakes with colons

The most common mistake I see is placing a colon right after a verb. “If your company is considering bankruptcy, you should: (followed by a list)”

The second most common colon mistake I see is using a colon when you need a semi-colon instead, but let’s talk about that mark of punctuation another day.

Learning about colons naturally

The best way to learn how to use colons is to read information-loaded text and pause whenever you see a colon to note how it was used. Be sure you choose writing of a high quality. My personal favorites are The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and most best-selling non-fiction books. Shy away from technical manuals.

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