The colon is a piece of punctuation that many people misunderstand. I often see it misused in papers, so here are a few guidelines for understanding colons.
Independent Clause Preceding a List
The most common mistake with colons is when they are placed after a dependent clause. Colons must be preceded by an independent clause.
- Incorrect: For the picnic we need: disgusting sandwiches for healthy people, delicious sandwiches for bacon fanatics, and moderate sandwiches for those who were too lazy to get one of the other types of sandwiches.
- Correct: For the picnic, we need at least three types of sandwiches: disgusting sandwiches for healthy people, delicious sandwiches for bacon fanatics, and moderate sandwiches for those who were too lazy to get one of the other types of sandwiches.
That’s not so bad, is it? Just make sure to put an independent clause in front of the list and you are good to go.
You can use a colon for amplification if a second phrase or sentence magnifies the first phrase or sentence.
- Example: She looked away from her mother and ate the last piece of forbidden pie: the utter act of rebellion made her wish she had eaten a disgusting sandwich instead.
You can use a colon to introduce an important quote.
- Example: The first bite of forbidden pie made her remember something her mother said about five minutes before: “If you do not finish your disgusting health sandwich before you eat dessert, you may not pet that llama.”