Confused about when and where to use the colon?

The colon looks like two full stops, one above the other, like this :


The problem is that it often gets misused. It appears in sentences where a comma would be better, or a semicolon, or even a full stop. Often people put it in the right sentence, but in the wrong place.


Should it be supported with a dash, like so :- ?

And should the first letter of the word following it be in capitals? Or not?

It needn’t be confusing if you follow these four tips.


Tip #1: Use a colon to introduce a list


This is the most common usage, and you can probably get by with just knowing this tip.

The colon tells you where the list starts, and usually comes immediately or soon after a word like ‘follows’, ‘following’ or ‘to’. For example:

The CEO outlined the following: sales had increased by 17%, costs had been slashed and profitability was up 25%.

Notice that the word following the colon (sales) doesn’t start with a capital ‘s’. This is because this is a single, unbroken sentence. You could say it is stronger than a comma (a longer pause), but not as strong as a full stop (it can’t break the sentence).

You can also write the example above as a bulleted list (and I recommend you do, where possible, because it’s clearer). The colon goes in the same place.

The CEO outlined the following:

  • Sales had increased by 17%.
  • Costs had been slashed.
  • Profitability was up 25%.


Unlike the single sentence version, each list item (bullet point) starts with a capital letter and ends in a full stop. This is because the sentence has been broken into separate sentences. Have a go at writing the following example as a vertical list in the same style.

Your options are to: surrender the policy, sell the policy, or stop paying premiums and accept a lower cash benefit.

Note that the ‘stem’ of the sentence does not change, even if you swap the list items (or bullet points) around.

Oh, and the answer is at the bottom of the page if you want to check it.


Tip #2: Use it to introduce direct speech or a quote


For example:

Laura said: “We can’t go to work today.”

In this example the direct speech starts with a capital ‘W’ because it is a complete, independent sentence.

The author writes: “…we do ask very big social questions, and we get answers.”

In this example the quote starts in the middle of a sentence (indicated by the three dots) so no capital ‘w’ at the start.


Tip #3: Use it to introduce a part of a sentence that is a logical continuation of the part before it


There’s only one thing I can’t stand about Joey: his personality.

The answer was obvious: she still loved him.

If you replaced the colon with a full stop in these examples, the first part would make a complete sentence in its own right.

A related use is to separate a heading from its subtitle:

Los Angeles: the city of angels


Tip #4: No need for caps or a dash, except…


Generally speaking you don’t need to follow a colon with a capital letter except in a vertical list broken into separate sentences (see Tip #1) or when you’re introducing an uninterrupted quote(Tip #2).

Always follow it with a single space, but not a dash. Ever…

…unless it’s an emoticon 🙂

Answer to vertical list exercise (tip #1)

Your options are to:

  • Surrender the policy.
  • Sell the policy.
  • Stop paying premiums and accept a lower cash benefit

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