Writing Re-Enlightenment

The colon, part 1: Organize lists

Posted in grammar, Uncategorized by Caralyn Davis on August 25, 2009

Do a few of the words and clauses in your writing seem to be stumbling around lost and confused in the dark? If you’re missing some structure, consider whether the colon (:) can help you rein in your text. The colon is a tiny grammatical flashlight, pointing your reader toward a path that you want them to follow. In other words, the colon emphasizes or governs text. One great way to use a colon is to organize series or lists.

Technically, a colon should be preceded by a complete independent clause when you are making a list. In other words, the clause potentially can stand alone as a sentence that makes at least a little sense. Consider the following examples:

1. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson are his eyes, his pale skin, and his brown hair. (Please note: I’m actually a little too old and decrepit to give a flying fig about R.Pattz. This is just a horribly misplaced attempt to reach “the youth.”)

2. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his eyes, his pale skin, and his brown hair.

In Example 1, you shouldn’t use the colon because “Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson are” could never stand alone as a sentence.

In Example 2, using the colon is OK because “Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following” is an independent clause that potentially could be a separate sentence. Not a great sentence, admittedly, but it has a subject, a verb, an object and no awkward constructions dangling off the end like “such as,” “including” or “for example.”

Examples 1 and 2 both work as sentences. Nothing is wrong with either one. So how do you decide when to use a colon and create a defined list? That’s a matter of style preference, but my basic rule of thumb is this: If you have five or more simple items, go ahead and make a list with a colon like in Example 2. Also use the colon if your list contains three or more extensive clauses. Here are some examples:

3. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his eyes, his skin, his brown hair, his chin, his chest, his fingers, his forearms, and his toes.

4. Some things my friends and I like about Robert Pattinson include the following: his piercing yet slumberous eyes that seem to twinkle just at us, his vampire-ready pale skin that makes us want to take moonlit strolls, and his beautifully messy brown hair that we would love to run our hands through and make just a tad messier.

In Examples 3 and 4, you can see how the colon truly highlights the text that follows it, creating lists that are easier to read and comprehend. If the information is particularly important to a nonfiction article, you also should consider making a bulleted or numbered list that is set off by spacing and indentation so that it is emphasized further for your reader.

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