If you’ve ever played a round of golf, you know that you have a full bag of clubs available to you. You have a driver and two or three woods to give you power when you tee off. You also have numerous irons to help you make those delicate approach shots to the green. You may even have a pitching wedge in case your ball ends up in the sand trap. Finally, of course, you must have a putter, so you can gently tap your ball into the hole. Just as a golfer needs a full bag of clubs to score well, as a writer, you need to use a full bag of punctuation marks to communicate effectively.
From my experience as a Composition teacher, I’ve noticed that many student writers use only two basic punctuation marks: the comma and the period. Students often ignore other punctuation marks — such as the dash, the colon, and the semicolon — primarily because these students don’t know how to use the punctuation marks correctly. As a result, students don’t score as well on their essays as they might because they’re not using all the tools available to them. This essay will focus on the colon.
The colon looks like one period placed on top of another period and is located to the right of the letter “L” on your keyboard, on the same key as the semicolon. The colon can be used in various situations, but it is used primarily for two tasks: (1) to separate and (2) to indicate what will follow. The first use is pretty easy; the second is a bit more complicated.
You may have already used a colon in one of the following situations:
• To separate the salutation of a business letter from the body of that letter
– Dear Mr. Kennedy:
• To separate the hours from the minutes in a reference to time
– I’ll meet you at 9:30 a.m.
• To separate the chapter from the verse in a Bible reference
– John 3:16.
• To separate the numbers in a proportion
– The ratio of students to teachers is 15:1.
• To separate a long quotation from the main text of your term paper
– Shakespeare’s Hamlet once said the following: “To be or not to be; that is the question . . . .”
Colons Indicate What Will Follow
A colon is also used to indicate that something will follow, and usually that something is a list. For example, “I enjoy the music of three musicians: Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen.”
Note that you must have a complete independent clause before the colon. Thus, you shouldn’t write, “My three favorite musicians are: Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen.” The colon in this example is not necessary because the phrase “My three favorite musicians are” is not a complete independent clause. Generally speaking, the colon follows phrases like “as follows” or “include the following.”
In other situations, however, you may want to use a colon not for a list of items but to emphasize one item or one idea.
“When you come to class, make sure you bring one thing with you: your brain.”
“I want you to always remember one thing: I love you.”
Finally, you may also use a colon between independent ideas when the first idea introduces a subject and arouses the reader’s curiosity, and the second idea illustrates the subject and satisfies the reader’s curiosity. For example, Joe Namath — the Hall of Fame quarterback for the New York Jets — is well known for the line, “I can’t wait until tomorrow: I get better looking every day.”
Believe it or not, your writing will get better every day if you’re willing to use all the punctuation marks that are available to you. After all, limiting yourself is like playing a round of golf with only one or two clubs. A better way to score well — both on the golf course and on your essays — is to use all the tools and to use them correctly.