The Colon

What, exactly, are colons? How are they different from semi-colons? How does one use them correctly? Here are the answers to all your questions – or at least the main ones.

Show the way:

  • Use colons to direct a reader’s attention toward a list or quotation, for example:
    • Just a few kinds of foods make up a typical college meal: carbohydrates, sugar, and then more carbohydrates.
    • Thomas Wolfe claims that home is never the same place after you’ve moved away: “You can’t go home again,” he writes.


  • Between independent clauses when the second explains the first, for example:
    • The biggest problem in America relates to money: there is a huge separation between the rich and the poor.

Avoid some common mistakes (don’t insert colons here):

  • Between a verb and its compliment (“…a typical college meals include: carbohydrates, sugar…”)
  • Between a preposition and its object (“…a typical college meal consists of: carbohydrates, sugar…”)
  • After such as, including, or for example (“…such as: peas, carrots…”)

Miscellaneous Uses:

  • After the salutation in a formal letter 
    • Dear Sir or Madam:
  • Times
    • 4:45 or Ratios (1:2) 
  • Between titles and subtitles
  • Between city and publishers in a worked cited

Colons can come in handy in a lot of writing, both to make the sentences flow more smoothly and add variety to your sentence structures. They have many different functions and when used correctly can add a lot to everyday writing.

Information taken from A Writer’s Reference by Diana Hacker (available on the shelves). For more information, see: or The Brief Penguin Handbook, which is located on the bookshelves in the Fred Meijer Center for Writing and Michigan Authors.

To view or print our Helpful Handout, click here: Colons

Have other questions? Stop in and visit! Or call us at 331-2922.

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Page last modified October 8, 2019