When to Use a Colon: a Grammar Guide With Examples

Though there are many rules, there is no definite answer to “when to use a colon?”

A colon introduces a piece of information or a series of information that adds to or explains what came before it. A semicolon shows a close connection between two independent clauses.

The colon is a handy tool to connect sentences and place the focus on a word or phrase. But, like all other punctuation marks, the colon is tied to grammar rules that many people find difficult.

We don’t use colons when there is a simple list of items, a single word, or a single sentence.

Let’s quickly dissect what colons are and when to use them so that your writing can always be readable and concise.

A colon is a type of punctuation mark used to break up a sentence.
When to Use a Colon

What Are Colons?

A colon is a type of punctuation mark used to break up a sentence. The colon looks like two vertically placed dots (:). The colon can be used in many ways. Colons could be used to start a list, explain something, introduce a quote, or link two sentences that go together.

A colon is a punctuation mark used to break up a sentence. The colon looks like two vertically placed dots (:). There are many ways to use a colon. We can use colons to start a list, explain something, introduce a quote, or link two sentences.

Colons inform the reader what transpired before the colon pointed to or described what went after the colon. (This is very different from the semicolon, which separates two independent parts of a sentence with the same meaning.)

Rules to Keep in Mind

A colon always comes after a complete sentence. Never put a colon at the end of a sentence fragment.

You can also remember when to use a colon with the following rule.

Full-sentence + colon + list, fragment, or complete sentence makes the first whole sentence clearer or gives more information.

A colon introduces something that illustrates, clarifies, or contributes to the statement before it.

When to Use a Colon in a Sentence

1. to Introduce a List/noun or Noun Phrase/quote, or Example/explanation.

You can bring attention to many things in your writing by using a colon. The categories below often overlap, so don’t worry too much if your use of the colon doesn’t fit exactly into one of them.

Colon With List Example

We represented the class well in the competition: dance, etiquette, cooking, and fashion.

Colon With Noun/noun Phrase Example

He gave me what I really wanted: His time and money

Colon With Quotation Example

Frank Sinatra made the ultimate statement: “The best revenge is massive success”

Colon With Example/explanation

There is a dark side to fame: chronic stress, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders.

2. Combination of Sentences

You can connect two sentences with a colon when the second sentence sums up, clarifies, or explains the first. Both sentences should be complete and have a lot in common with each other.

Keep in mind that too many colons can break up the flow of your writing. So don’t let your colons get the best of you!


Nothing is softer or more flexible than water: nothing can resist it.

3. Writing and Time Conventions

In writing, there are a few places where it is normal to use a colon. Here are just a few:

Colons are used to separate ratios, bible verses and chapters, units of time, etc


Colon With Time

  • 5:25:10, meaning 5 hours, 25 minutes, and 10 seconds.

Colon With Ratios

  • 2:1, 4:3, 7:4

Colons With Bible Verses and Chapters

  • Matthew 2:24, Psalm 15: 8-12

4. Bibliography Entries

Example: Frances, B. (2012). Character: A conflict of emotions. James and Co., New York, N.Y.

5. Titles and Subtitles

Use a colon to separate the title from the subtitle.

Devils Advocate: “the last man standing.”

6. Formal Letters

In a formal letter, you can use a colon right after the greeting (less-formal letters tend to use a comma in this location).


To Whom It May Concern: Kindly accept my application for the position advertised in the Guardian newspaper.

To Wrap Up

Colons are most commonly used in a way which varies according to the sentence. There are times when a colon could fall in between sentences or when used as a combination of sentences to make a point.

The key is to really understand the context in which you are using the colon. Following the rules above for when to use colons will help you avoid errors in your writing.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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