Although colons are seldom used, they are often used incorrectly. They are also often used interchangeably with the semi-colon. It is therefore important to have some guidelines as to when and how to use a colon.

There is often confusion as to when to use a colon. Many people put the colon instead of the semi-colon which causes confusion, not to mention serious grammatical errors. When you want to use a colon, you need to be aware of the correct usage of the colon and the instances when it can be used to enhance your sentences or paragraphs. Any editor will tell you that it often happens that the colon is not in the right place and then has to be corrected during the editing process.

To start off with, a colon can be defined as: A mark of punctuation ( : ) used after a statement (usually an independent clause) that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example or a series.[i]It is therefore very rare that a colon may be used.

Here are some instances when a colon can be used appropriately:

  1. After an independent clause that precedes a list e.g:
    The following are ingredients of the cake: Flour, butter, eggs …
    Some of the people that have been nominated for this award are: Mary Sullivan, John Jones and the Lebotski twins.
  1. To separate an explanation, rule, or example from a preceding independent clause.
    After many hours of thought, the detective came to a conclusion: It had to be the butler.
    Singing is more than a voice following notes on a page: It allows the artist to express emotion in a creative manner.
  2. After the salutation of a business letter.
    Dear Madam Chairperson:
  3. In the heading of a business memo or e-mail.
  4. Between the hour and the minutes.
    12:20 am
  5. Between the chapter and the verse in the Bible, in citations for some literary works, and between the volume and the number of some publications.
  • Genesis 1:18-20
  • Part 3:121
  • Vol. 2:34
  1. As part of a title.
    Conventional Magic: The power of three.
  2. In a bibliography between the place of publication and the name of the publisher.

Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1966.

Should you be in doubt as to how to use a colon, or when or where to put one in your sentence, it is worth asking yourself what the purpose of the colon should be. If the answer falls within the boundaries of the examples above, it is obviously appropriate to make use of the colon. If it doesn’t obviously fall within the parameters of said examples, you need to reconsider making use of the colon. In such a case you may want to put either a full stop (.) or a semi-colon (;) depending on the context of your sentence and the paragraph it is in.

How to use a colon is an example of the use of proper punctuation in the English language. This requires a good knowledge about grammar, punctuation as well as the other aspects of writing in English. Poor punctuation reflects poorly on the author and editors have to do extensive work to papers and manuscripts to correct these.

The rules for punctuation are fairly simple and, when followed, very effective. Following these rules will make your paper easier to read and understanding, which leads to a greater respect for your writing ability. This is, after all, what all authors want to achieve through their writing. Usually fame (and sometimes fortune) follows the respect that your writing brings to you.