In praise of colons

I love colons. I also love lists so perhaps those two ideas are related. Colons are kind of showy too and as i explained to a student this morning, I think if you use one in a paragraph, it elevates your writing to a more sophisticated level. And really who doesn't want to be seen to be sophisticated.  Read on to learn how to use a colon correctly.


The most common usage of the colon is to introduce a list. Remember, a list has at least three items. But here is the trick. Each list item has to be parallel. Parallel you say. What the heck is that? It means that each item has to have the same grammatical construction. Don't panic. I explain more below. 

Let's take a look at a few examples

1  This is my usual workout when I go to the gym: I lift weights. I run on the treadmill. I do a lot of leg lifts and pushups.

Notice that each item after the colon has a subject and a verb. In other words, each item is a clause---an independent clause in fact. And because each part is an independent clause, we use a capital letter to begin and a period at the end of each list item. Each item is parallel.

Let's look at another example

2 Here are some qualities I admire in my brother: his kindness, his sense of humor, his dependability. 

Notice here that each item in the list is a pronoun and a noun or noun phrase. Not a verb in sight! So we use a lower case letter to begin and a comma to separate the items in the list.

Here's an important point to remember. The first item in the list sets the pattern for the rest of the list. Let me explain with an example from "life". Women,  when you choose one earring, then that tells you what the other will be and most likely what necklace to choose. Men, your shirt and jacket choice sets the pattern for what tie you will wear. The same is true of a list after a colon. The first one sets the pattern. Now go forth and use colons with confidence!

And just for fun, another cartoon from the fabulous Dan Piraro of Bizarro Comics. I always giggle at his take on life. Last week my brother was here and as his wife is Scottish, he is the proud owner of many kilts which he loves to wear whenever the occasion demands.


restroom cartoon