Colon punctuation is often confusing because people use too many or not enough. The function of a colon is pretty simple to understand: it introduces, emphasizes, and punctuates extended quotations, but that's not all! Carry on reading, and we'll explain colon punctuation, how to use colons, and when to capitalize after them. This colon punctuation guide can be used for grades 6+ and ESL.

Colon Punctuation Sentence Examples

Colons ( : ) are used in many ways, and you can use them to replace conjunctions "such as" "which is" or even "thus." Here are some examples of how colon punctuation is used in English grammar.

Introducing Quotes, Explanations, or Lists

  1. These are the three smallest countries in the world: Vatican City, Monaco, and Nauru, a small island in Micronesia.
  2. The soccer team's success is based on four main principles: practice, good leadership, team spirit, and passion.

Connecting Independent Clauses

Colon punctuation can connect independent clauses when the second sentence explains the first sentence.

  1. She isn't coming to the party: she sent me a text message this morning.
  2. I didn't have time to get you a present: I've been busy studying this week.

Making Sentences with Colons

Constructing your thoughts and ideas can be confusing with colons, especially as different style guides say contrasting things. Let's look at a few different ways.

1) Clarifying

Clarifying is when you explain a statement or situation from the infinitive verb "to clarify."

You can use colons between two complete sentences when the second sentence explains or expands on the first one.

  1. Dinosaurs became extinct almost 65 million years ago: the earth's climate changed so much that they couldn't survive.
  2. "Stranger Things" isn't just a show: It's a cultural phenomenon.
  3. A colon is like a drum: it announces that something else is coming.

2) Introducing Bullet Points

Bullet-pointed lists are good for demonstrating examples of particular things without necessarily having a defined order.

Only write a bullet-pointed list after an independent clause.

1. Here are the health benefits of our drinks:

  • rich in omega 3
  • low in carbs
  • low in sugars

You'll also notice that we haven't used punctuation or capitalization because it's a style choice— they are optional in this case.

3) Introducing Direct Speech & Quotations

Colons are a great way of introducing quotes. When you want to quote something or someone, introduce the quote and add a colon before the quote begins.

  1. Julius Caesar once said: "I came, I saw, I conquered."

Colons are also helpful for extended quotes; you can apply them similarly. If a quote is longer than forty words or three lines of verse, it's considered an extended quote.

Introduce the quote as before, but this time use line spacing to separate the quote from the introduction. Note: quotation marks aren't necessary with extended quotes. Here's an example:

2. Maya Angelou once stated:

I don't know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, 'Well, if I'd known better, I'd have done better,' that's all...

4) Introducing Explanations

Colons are used to introduce examples or provide more information for an idea.

To use colon punctuation like this, the first part of the sentence must be an independent clause, meaning it must be able to function by itself and make sense; here's what we mean.

  1. Our school offers many extra-curricular activities: paintballing, gymnastics, and swimming.
  2. I've got to pack three things for the field trip: a water bottle, a tent, and a sleeping bag.
  3. The recipe is easy peasy: mix everything in a bowl and put it in the oven.

5) Listing Words

Perhaps the most common use of a colon is when we create lists. When punctuating a list, we use colons after an independent clause. Here are a few everyday examples of colon punctuation.

  1. When we go shopping, I need a few things: eggs, bread, milk, and cheese.
  2. I'd like the following gifts for my birthday: a new watch, an Ipad, and a new school bag.
  3. He's allergic to the following things: peanuts, gluten, and lactose.

Colon Punctuation: Do's & Don'ts

When using a colon as punctuation, there are some specific rules to bear in mind. The following list covers the dos and don'ts.

1) Always capitalize the first word after a colon if it's a proper noun. (There are some style guide variations to this rule, which we will cover later)

  • There are three major cities in the U.K.: London, Birmingham, and Manchester. ✅
  • There are three major cities in the U.K.: london, Birmingham, and Manchester. ❌

2) Colons aren't used to separate verbs and their object or complement.

  • The best ice cream in the world is made in Brooklyn, New York. ✅
  • The best ice cream in the world is made: in Brooklyn, New York. ❌

3) Don't use a colon between a preposition and its object.

  • My favorite cookies are made of sugar, eggs, coconut flour, chocolate chips, and a little pinch of salt. ✅
  • My favorite cookies are made of: sugar, eggs, coconut flour, chocolate chips, and a little pinch of salt. ❌

We've looked at common mistakes people make: let's look at ways you can use colons.

Do I Capitalize After a Colon?

Well, that's the ultimate question, and the most simple answer we can give is that it depends on the style guide you're using.

For everyday writing, you're free to decide whether you capitalize after a colon, except for proper nouns that must always be capitalized.

AP & APA Colon Punctuation Style Guide Rules

If you follow the AP style or APA style guides, they suggest you capitalize after a colon if it's the start of a complete sentence.

  1. Jimmy was surprised: She had never acted like that before.

MLA Colon Punctuation Style Guide Rules

Alternatively, the MLA and Chicago Manual of Style recommend using a capital letter after a colon if it introduces two sentences, not one.

  1. Jimmy was surprised: She had never acted like that before. Not even when she was young.

Colon Punctuation Quiz

Think you've got it? Check your understanding with this colon punctuation quiz according to the MLA style guide.

1. Choose the correct sentence.

Choose the best answer from the choices below

Possible answers

2. Choose the sentence with the correct colon punctuation.

Choose the best answer from the choices below

Possible answers

3. Choose the correct sentence.

Choose the best answer from the choices below

Possible answers

After reading this article, you might feel like the king of colons, and if you're struggling with other types of punctuation, we've got plenty of grammar tools to help you out!

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