If a colon (the punctuation symbol, not the internal organ) could talk, it would say,”Pay attention to what is coming.” A colon is used to alert the reader that some important information follows. Here are the common uses for the colon:
- Used in digital time after the hour to tell you about the minutes (10:45)
- Used sometimes to introduce a quote that is a sentence or longer
- Often used between the title and subtitle of a book in text (not on the actual cover)
- Used between two sentences when the second sentence expands upon or explains the first one
- Used after the greeting of a business letter (Dear Mr. James:)
- And, of course, used to introduce a list, either vertical or horizontal
This post deals with the last one, using colons to introduce a list. First of all, forget about semicolons (;) right now; the semicolon is not used in any of the same ways as the colon. Colons (or occasionally periods, but never semicolons) are used to introduce lists.
I was once taught not to use a colon (but to use a period instead) unless the words “following” or “as follows” were used in the sentence introducing the list. Not really true. You can use a colon anyway. I was also taught at this time not to use following as a noun, because it is an adjective. Okay, generally true except Justin Bieber still has a following, as do the Beatles. But I digress. It is true that following should probably have a noun after it. For example
Please make sure you have the following: (okay)
Please make sure you have the following items: (better)
Use a colon in a horizontal list when the information before the colon is a complete sentence. Otherwise, there is no punctuation. Look at these two examples:
Please bring the following items: pen, pencil, notebook, and laptop. (Since there is no complete sentence after the colon, no capital letter is needed.)
Please bring: pen, pencil, notebook, and laptop.
The second sentence is not correct. There should be no colon after bring. There is no stop there if you are reading the sentence, so do not put any punctuation in it. Correct: Please bring a pen, a pencil, a notebook, and a laptop.
You have a little more leeway in a vertical list. It is still best to use a complete sentence to introduce the list if you want to use a colon. If the introduction is not a complete sentence, you don’t need any punctuation. However, since the list is more separate in a vertical list than in a horizontal, you can get by with a colon. See the examples here.
Please bring the following items:
Or you can say
Please bring (or Please “bring:” if you must)
You don’t use any periods after the items in a vertical list unless they are complete sentences. And if one item in your list is a complete sentence, all items should be. They should also all be written with the same structure (called parallel structure).
Sometimes people write a vertical list as if it were a sentence. For example
- a pencil,
- a pen,
- a notebook, and
- a laptop.
I don’t personally like this method, but it is okay to use.
Here is an example of a list that isn’t parallel because one item is not a complete sentence:
In this seminar you will discuss these important things:
- Marketing is a full-time job.
- You need to use social media.
- Proofreading your writing.
- Blogging is very helpful.
- It is important to develop your brand.
The proofreading item doesn’t belong. It is the only item that is not a complete sentence.
Here is another list that isn’t parallel because one item is structured differently:
In this seminar you will learn
- how to market your project
- how to develop your brand
- how to create a website
- blogging every day (doesn’t fit here!)
- how to best proofread your writing
(You could have capitalized the items in the previous list if you wanted to.)
Here are a few other tips:
No, you don’t need to use bullets in your lists unless you want to. However they are effective.
You can use numbers if the order of your items is important, or the number of items is important or previously mentioned.
You can capitalize items in a vertical list even if they are not complete sentences.
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