Following on from my post on how to use the semi-colon, this post focuses on how to use the colon (:). It’s an easier punctuation mark to master than the semi-colon, but people still sometimes struggle to use it correctly.

1. Use the colon to explain or expand upon information

The colon is used between clauses, where the second clause explains or follows on from the first. The important point to remember here is that the first clause must be an independent clause (i.e. it must have a subject and verb). Here are some examples:

Paul thought I’d been ignoring his emails: I hadn’t received any email from him though.

On my morning walk I heard beautiful birdsong: the dawn chorus was in full flow.

We decided to buy a new house: a small cottage by the sea.

2. Use the colon to introduce a list

A frequent use of the colon is to introduce a list, as in the following examples:

In my gap year I travelled to several different countries: Australia, Thailand, China and Peru.

I aim to complete the following chapters of my dissertation soon:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review
  3. Methodology

3. Use the colon to introduce a long quotation

The colon is also used to introduce long quotations. The quotation is usually indented and is presented without quotation marks, as in the following example:

Until the 1960s, it was a widely held belief that sound change was a gradual process, and could not, in practice, be observed:

The process of linguistic change has never been directly observed; we shall see that such observation, with our present facilities, is inconceivable (Bloomfield 1933: 347).

4. Use the colon in in-text references and reference lists to introduce a range of pages

This usage doesn’t apply to all referencing styles, so please check with the style your university department uses first. The colon is often used to introduce a range of pages following a quotation or in a reference list, as in the following examples:

Labov stated that ‘the ideal method for the study of change is diachronic’ (Labov 1966: 218).

Labov, W. (1963). ‘The social motivation of a sound change.’ Word 19: 273-309.

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