To Beat a Grammarian: Colon

To Beat a Grammarian: Colon


Unlike other posts, I can firmly say I’ve never had a hankering for the colon. There’s just something about it that feels so cold, so formal—and yet, it’s up in this post’s title. For this reason, I can’t refuse its usefulness. Just saying, other punctuation marks rank higher in my regard. With that said, let’s see what it’s about.

1) Listing

Now, when I describe any of these grammar points, I’m mainly doing so in regards to fiction. Though some of these rules may blur over into everyday writing, my primary concern is with the art of writing. Therefore, the first function of the colon—to produce a list—may not seem so ‘fiction-worthy,’ but it can come in handy, like below.

While his wife was gone, Tom did many things: met Andy—whom his wife specifically hated; went to bed well after the sun was up; and washed not a single dish in the house.

It can be done this way, but for me, I usually just throw a subject onto the appended phrase and slap a period where the colon is. I like tight sentences when I can. To each their own, I guess. The other use of colons is a little more my speed.


2) Emphasis

This is pretty straight forward, but it needs to be seen a bit to fully grasp. Though dashes and other marks highlight certain words or phrases, the colon has a much stronger thrust to it. Check it out.

Remember: you must be home before midnight.


Duly note: her husband never mentioned where he had been. In the future, this would cause problems.

In both of the above, we need to pay extra attention to the fact that the strength aspect comes after the colon and must be accompanied by some phrase or command to show that strength. That is to say, don’t just throw any word out there with a colon.

Spill: his drink went all over the floor.

Though not highly acceptable, it does have a nice ring to it.

Above all, the most useful hint for colon use I’ve found is in regards to what follows it, and only after reading this tidbit, did I realize how true it is. It said: everything that comes after the colon should be fully expected. Makes sense—no? In a way, it’s saying we should already know what kind of information we’re getting, whether it be surprising or something useful.

One last note for something I didn’t know about the colon’s formal use in non-fiction writing: when addressing the recipient of letters, it is best to use a colon instead of a comma Like so:

Dear Mr. Johnson:

This whole time I’ve been tossing the comma on there in an informal manner to most every correspondence I’ve done. It may not seem big to you or me, but in some circles, that’s like saying, “Whassup!” Budweiser-style to your grandfather. Not cool, I guess.


One thought on “To Beat a Grammarian: Colon

  1. Well, I’ve learned something today! I always use a comma rather than a colon in formal letter – and apparently I’m not very clever in doing so :\ Thanks for the advice, Tim.


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