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After the comma, the two marks of punctuation most often used inappropriately are semicolons and colons. Whole books have been written about the “correct” use of these little marks. It’s a wonder wars haven’t been fought over them. There’s even a movement in the higher levels of some ivory towers to eliminate one of them. Until that happens, though, we tech writers have to use them and do it in a way that won’t get us into too much trouble with proofreaders, editors, or clients.
For this Exercise, we’re going to deal only with the colon. There isn’t space here to layout all the various rules/opinions or to create a style guide on the subject. The intent of this exercise is to give an idea of where we can run afoul of the “rules” about using a colon. It can also help us to see where some of the disagreements lie and decide where we stand on them.
Based on a few, simple, generally agreed-upon usage rules, the task is to decide whether each sentence needs or doesn’t need a colon. The “correct” usage we provide is based on our version of standard written English (SWE). If you disagree and can support your position with a good style guide, we’re not going to argue.
OK, in a rather large nut shell, here are some guides to using the colon.
Most writers are familiar with using a colon to:
- separate the hour and the minute in a time reference –The train arrived at 6:43 in the morning.
- indicate a ratio –The correct ration of gin to vermouth is 4:1.
- separate chapter and verse in a scriptural reference –You can’t go wrong if you follow the advice in 1 Timothy 5:23
- follow the salutation in a formal letter –To the Members of the Board:
Some people are unsure about when a colon is used to:
- introduce lists – (In this usage, what comes before the colon must be a complete thought without the rest of the sentence. If it’s a sentence but an incomplete thought, don’t use a colon.)Correct: The old stereo had three speeds: 78, 45, and 33 1/3.Incorrect: The old stereo speeds were: 78, 45, and 33 1/3.Correct: He was fluent in two languages: Russian and Urdu.
Incorrect: He was able to read: Russian, Greek, and Urdu.
- introduce a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun just before it at the end of a sentence -Correct: He didn’t expect what hit him: a squash. Incorrect: He didn’t expect it when he got hit: with a squash
- introduce a quotation when it follows a complete sentence – Correct: My mother started every meal with the same comment: “Eat it or I’ll throw it to the hogs.”Incorrect: My mother started every meal with the same comment, “Eat it or I’ll throw it to the hogs.”
- separate a title from a subtitle – Correct: She was reading Playing the Oriental Lute: Basic Lessons from Too Ning.Incorrect: The book’s title was Betting on the Dogs Through the Eyes of a Grayhound.
- separate two independent clauses when the second clause explains the first clause or gives an example – Correct: The advice my dad gave me was sound: don’t sweat the petty stuff and don’t pet the sweaty stuff.Incorrect: The advice my dad gave me about: don’t sweat the petty stuff and don’t pet the sweaty stuff was sound.
Read each of these sentences and decide whether there needs to be a colon and whether it’s in the right place.
1. There was only one thing that Mr. Colbert worried about: exactly where was the bear at that moment.
2. She was responsible for: invitations, seat assignment, and greeting the guests.
3. She was able to sing: pop, opera, country, and soul.
4. He had only one need in order to survive: water.
5. They enjoyed challenges such as: swimming, boating, and rock climbing.
6. Don’t ever forget rule Number One: the boss is always right.
7. They gave him a choice of transportation: trains, planes, and automobiles, but he said he didn’t really want to travel.
8. To Whom It May Concern: is not a good way to start a letter
9. Everything went wrong at once: the storm hit, the window broke, Jill dropped the flashlight in the pond, and Hal let the cat slip out the door.
10. To Whom It May Concern:
When you’re done check the answer below.
Exercise – Answer
Colon or no colon? That is the question.
1. Correct – There was only one thing that Mr. Colbert worried about: exactly where was the bear at that moment.
2. Wrong – She was responsible for: invitations, seat assignment, and greeting the guests.
3. Wrong – She was able to sing: pop, opera, country, and soul.
4. Correct – He had only one need in order to survive: water.
5. Wrong – They enjoyed challenges such as: swimming, boating, and rock climbing.
6. Correct – Don’t ever forget rule Number One: the boss is always right.
7. Wrong – They gave him a choice of transportation: trains, planes, and automobiles, but he said he didn’t really want to travel.
8. Wrong – To Whom It May Concern: is not a good way to start a letter.
9. Correct – Everything went wrong at once: the storm hit, the window broke, Jill dropped the flashlight in the pond, and Hal let the cat slip out the door.
10. Correct To Whom It May Concern:
If you can write a simple sentence and organize your thoughts then technical writing may be a rewarding field. You can easily make it a second income stream in your spare time.
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