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How to use colons

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A colon is two full stops stacked on top of each other, and it is very useful for conveying emotion :-) :-( However, there are more uses for the colon than just making smilies.The purpose of the colon is to introduce information that has been added after a clause. If it helps, you can think of a colon as a set of headlights illuminating some extra information. The most important thing to remember when using a colon is that the clause that comes before the colon must be able to stand alone. If I wanted to use a colon in the sentence above, I would need to write it like this:

There's one important thing to remember about the clause that comes before a colon: it must be able to stand alone.

I couldn't write....

The one important thing to remember about the clause that comes before a colon is: it must be able to stand alone.

The clause before the colon doesn't make sense on its own.

There's one final thing to remember about colons: they are often confused with semicolons. Although their names are similar and they're similar in appearance, the colon and semicolon are used for very different purposes.

Activity: Using colons to introduce information - 5 minutes

1. Decide where the colons should go in each of the sentences below:

  • There are three types of people in the world the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • You'll need a lot of equipment for the camping trip tent, bedding roll, water bottle, sleeping bag, camping stove and a spare set of clothes.
  • There are some important steps to take if your car becomes stuck in snow keep your engine running, keep warm, have a hot drink and try to call for help.
  • I always make sure I have three meals a day breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • To draw a graph you need the following things a pencil, graph paper and a ruler.
  • There are two things I like about you your generosity and your sense of humour.
  • In my previous jobs I have had several roles secretary, administrative assistant, cleaner and bar staff.
  • This is what I told her take it out of the oven, or it will burn.
  • To get a good job you need two things a good reference and lots of experience.
How did you do?

When you have completed the above activity, you can view the answers below.

Activity: How not to use colons - 10 minutes

1. The clause before a colon must be able to stand alone: it must be an independent clause. The sentences below all contain misused colons. Decide how each sentence could be rewritten so the colon is used correctly.

  • Send a stamped addressed envelope to: 14 Acacia Avenue, Barnes, London W13 8FG.
  • The stark choice is: bankruptcy or repossession.
  • My lunch consisted of: cheese, an apple and a packet of crisps.
  • My mother used to say: call me anything, but don't call me late for dinner.
  • My favourite films are: Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and Brief Encounter.
  • The countries playing in the quarter-finals included: Italy, Germany, Greece and Holland.
how did you do?

Once you have completed the above activity, you can review your answers below:

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