Write Now: The Colon Is A Powerful Punctuation Mark

When writing, sometimes one may use a punctuation mark incorrectly. The incorrect use usually happens when lists or a separation of items are involved. Most writers know how to use a “period,” a “comma,” a “question mark,” an “exclamation point.” But what some writers misuse is the “colon.”

In my opinion, I think most writers learn how to use the punctuation mark, but seldom use it because the sentences and phrases that they write don’t call for its use. And because of that reason, writers continue to misuse the colon. When I taught English Language Arts, I used to drill spelling, punctuation, and grammar because those three gave a writer his freedom.

Correct spelling is essential because no one likes to see his name misspelled. Remember to research correct spelling when a homophone –where two words have the same pronunciation, but have different meanings — is used.

Punctuation is very important because each mark signals what will happen next. A period, question mark, and an exclamation point mean the sentences ends whereas a semicolon or colon may mean a list or separation. Without punctuation, readers would not know when sentences begin or end.

Grammar is very important because it’s like a computer code. If the code is correctly written, then the program will work.

I used to teach my students how grammar is a resource, not a deficit, and with proper grammar skills, they could make language do what they wanted it to do. I also taught my students how to draw on their own experiences to make new experiences, and how to think critically and creatively.

According to Constance Weaver’s The Grammar Plan Book: A Guide to Smart Teaching, “Fundamentally, the grammar of a language is its structure. It’s the elements of the language and the structural ‘rules’ for containing them — whether or not anybody understands those rules consciously.”

In college, I had a English professor who would make a check mark (√) at the end of each line that contained a mistake. The question mark would be there in the margin. He would not comment on the mark, but make it incumbent on the student to figure out what the mistake was. The check marks include spelling, grammar and you guessed it — punctuation.

At first I didn’t understand the method of his madness — his grading procedure. But then I recognized that if you kept on looking at your paper without asking any questions, either you didn’t know why he checked what he checked. The usual culprit on students’ papers was misuse of the colon. I remember receiving a check mark once for that infraction, but I was prompt and attentive and wanted to know why I received the grade I received. He answered me and told me where I could find the answer. He wanted you to ask because to him that meant you cared about your writing and the material he was teaching. I never forgot that lesson.

The colon is misused because, in my opinion, it is not used enough. When using the punctuation mark remember to use it correctly.

If one uses A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker, she shows three situations in which colons can be used.

¯ Use a colon after an independent clause to direct attention to a list, an appositive or a quotation.

¯ Use a colon between independent clauses if the second summarizes or explains the first.

¯ Use a colon after the salutation in a formal letter, to indicate hours and minutes, to show proportions, and between title and subtitle.

The two most common ways I see a misused colon are when it is used between a verb and its object, and between a preposition and its object.

You have seen sentences like these.

The students who have qualified for scholarships are: J. Swan, H. Nobles, and K. Gradford.

The winning 1,600 meter relay is comprised of: J. Lasker, R. Hastings, B. Kelley, and M. Stanford.

An easy solution is to remove the colons and both sentences read as intended.

The students who have qualified for scholarships are J. Swan, H. Nobles, and K. Gradford.

The winning 1,600 meter relay is comprised of J. Lasker, R. Hastings, B. Kelley, and M. Stanford.

The one thing I am on the fence about with colons is whether or not to capitalize the word following the colon. I guess it makes no difference to me. When writing on your own it doesn’t matter either, but if writing in a formal situation or for a grade, check with the teacher and see what style he prefers.


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