The colon has some specific uses, and is best viewed as a way of introducing lists and additional information. It has a clearer role than the semicolon, and here are some examples of how it can be used effectively:

  1. It introduces lists (as used here ⇒):
    • She went to the store to get some things she needed for dinner: potatoes, split peas, chives and onions.
    • He assembled his meagre possessions: an old suitcase, a few unwashed shirts, a pair of worn trousers, and his much-loved harmonica.
    • The new CEO demanded all the important statistics: the latest stock price, the total company debts, outstanding creditors, and the current bank balance.
  2. It is often used in preference to the comma when introducing direct speech:
    • The President said: “We must improve the national health system.”
    • Mother boldly declared: “Wipe your feet or stay outside!”
  3. It can be used in a sentence to dramatically announce the final phrase:
    • Our captain decided to stop foxing with the enemy ship: he ordered a broadside.
    • The actor beamed with every curtain call: it was her finest moment.
    • “Of course you can do it: and you will!”

    In these examples, you will see that the final phrase elaborates or completes the anticipation created by the first phrase.

  4. It joins two oppositional phrases that form a single idea:
    • Men lust: women love.
    • Man proposes: God disposes.
    • Give me liberty: or give me death!
    • I hate everything about you: otherwise, you’re a nice guy.
  5. It sets off the subtitles of books and movies:
    • Style manual: For authors, editors and printers (6th ed.)
    • Usage and Abusage: a guide to good English (Eric Partridge)
    • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  6. A colon is used in scriptural references, time references, and some bibliographical references (not Harvard):
    • Exodus 20:2–17
    • 3:30 p.m. or 3:30 PM [note the optional use of SMALL CAPS for more elegant typography].
    • Einstein 1928:28–30
    Note: In Australia and the UK, preference is mostly given to the use of a full stop to separate time elements (e.g. 9.45 am), although this has the potential to be confused with decimal numbers. I prefer the colon as it is easily identifiable.
  7. It separates dramatic characters from dialogue in a script:
    HAMLET: Where wilt thou lead me? Speak; I’ll go no further!
    GHOST: Mark me.
    HAMLET: I will.

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