Although the colon is not a common punctuation mark, it is usually used after an independent clause to introduce a list of items, to answer a posed question, or to link related information. Use colons sparingly, but when used correctly, they can add variety and complexity to your writing.
Introducing a List
A colon can be used to introduce a list at the end of a sentence that links back to information earlier in a sentence. The colon will usually replace a preposition or prepositional phrase in the sentence.
Appropriate: The band Led Zeppelin has performed most often in three countries: The United States, The United Kingdom, and Germany.
Inappropriate: The band has performed at: Madison Square Garden, Tampa Stadium, and Sam Houston Coliseum.
Note: The colon separates the preposition “at” from its objects.
Combining Clauses and Phrases
Sometimes, the information you want to add after a colon might itself be an independent clause (a complete sentence), a dependent clause (incomplete sentence), or just a single word or a few words. If this information adds to, explains, or answers the information in the first part of the sentence, then a colon is appropriate.
Appropriate: Led Zeppelin did something that few other bands could: perform at Madison Square Garden six times in seven days.
Appropriate: One word can describe Led Zeppelin’s success: legendary.
Inappropriate: Led Zeppelin was performing: it was a sold-out crowd.
Note: In this case, a semicolon would be more appropriate than a colon because the two independent clauses contain related ideas but does not directly add to, explain, or answer the information in the first part of the sentence.
Appropriate: The show was sold out: Led Zeppelin was performing for the last time.
Note: In this case, the colon would be appropriate since it is answering an implied question: why was the show sold out? The answer is contained in the next independent clause.
Some writers will capitalize the first word of the clause following the colon, while other writers do not. This choice will depend on context and on a particular writer’s style. Make sure you know your instructor’s preferences on this “rule” before using a colon to separate two independent clauses in your papers.
Lowercased Example: Led Zeppelin music is available in three formats: vinyl, compact disc, and digital downloads.
Capitalized Example: Led Zeppelin music is available in three formats: Vinyl, compact disc, and digital downloads.
Commas and colons can both be used after dialogue is introduced. However, colons are utilized when the quoted material is formally introduced and is not integrated as part of the sentence. Other times, a comma or colon is not necessary if the quoted material is a continuation of the sentence.
Necessary: Lead vocalist Robert Plant once iterated: “I used to be better looking than this.”
Unnecessary: “If it’s not been received in the evidence,” Judge Klausner noted about the band’s copyright case, “it’s the basis of a mistrial” (Diehl, 2016).
Use a colon to introduce a quotation longer than one sentence that is embedded in your paragraph.
The band members are never afraid to discuss their colorful experiences, as Robert Plant indicated at a press conference: “Everything that we talk about is American, from our music tastes more or less…”
Use a colon to end a paragraph that introduces a block quotation after it. See our Block Quotations handout for more information.
Robert Plant addressed the media and said:
We used to call ourselves the band of nods because if you missed a cue, we’d just wait a bit and nod. It had nothing to do with opiates, we were just nodding. Those nods have turned into middle-aged grins. (Gensier, 2012).
Other Common Uses
Use colons to introduce the text of questions and answers (i.e. in interviews):
Q: In what year was Led Zeppelin’s first tour?
A: The band’s first tour was in 1968.
Use colons to separate the hour and the minute measurement:
The concert is scheduled at 7:30 p.m.
Use colons to separate chapters and verses in some religious texts:
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 tells us that there is a season for everything.
Use colons to separate the year and the page number in ASA (American Sociological Association) parenthetical citations:
(Plant and Franklin 2067:57)
Diehl, M. (2016, Jun. 14). Led Zeppelin appear in court for start of colorful “Stairway” trial. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/led-zeppelin-appear-in-court-for-colorful-start-of-stairway-trial-20160614
Gensier, A. (2012, Oct. 10). Robert Plant’s 14 best lines from Led Zeppelin movie event: “Sometimes we were fu—ing awful.” Billboard. Retrieved from http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/474723/robert-plants-14-best-lines-from-led-zeppelin-movie-event-sometimes-we-were-fu
**All information without a parenthetical citation stating otherwise comes from www.ledzeppelin.com