“Those present were: Odds Bodkins, Pam Kirst, Harvey Mitchell, Alice B. Toklas, and Walter Winchell.”
I want to email her and say, “Now, Judy. You are using that colon incorrectly. You don’t have to use a colon just because you have a list.”
I need to figure out a polite way to do that without sounding like what I am: a cranky old English teacher. But I can’t blame Judy; I see that misuse of the colon in many, many places, including in advertising and in the newspaper. It makes my red-pen finger very, very itchy. I get the urge to write letters to editors. I restrain myself, but if I did write such a letter, here’s what I would say:
“Only use the colon to attach a list, word, or phrase after an independent claus (or complete sentence.)”
That’s what a colon does: it attaches something to a clause that could stand alone without it.
Take the sentence, She ate several things for breakfast.
It’s not a very descriptive sentence, but it is complete and fully functional all by itself. If I wanted to add some detail, though, I could take the list of things she had that morning, bump off that period, and attach the list with a colon. It would look like the sentence below.
She ate several things for breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast, spaghetti, and orange cookies.
When Judy writes, Those present were… that is incomplete. Here’s a complete sentence, though, that she could use.
Those present included the following.
Then she could legally bump off the period, put a colon in its place, and add the list.
Those present included the following: Odds Bodkins, Pam Kirst, Harvey Mitchell, Alice B. Toklas, and Walter Winchell.
What’s on one side of a colon is an independent, stand-alone, sentence; what’s on the other side cannot stand alone. The incomplete part can be one word or a list of fifty things (although we won’t try that here.)
One could write, I love only one dessert: tiramasu.
Or, one could write, I have loved three beverages equally: coffee, chocolate milk, and lemonade.
And feel free to play with the order. Put the incomplete part first, if you like.
Changing it up: that’s a wonderful thing to do with your writing.
Purple: that’s a color with many variations.
In punctuating sentences, I think of semi-colons and colons as the fulcrum on a seesaw. When you use the semi-colon, you’re connecting two complete sentences. The seesaw is perfectly balanced. When you use a colon, one end of the sentence is always touching the ground, because the other end is incomplete.
There are other ways to use colons, of course, in the crazy language that is English. They connect ratios, and they separate the hour from the minutes when we’re writing about time, for example. But when attaching lists or explanatory phrases, it’s good to remember that a colon is used to glue those things that cannot stand alone to complete sentences.
(More, of course, at Purdue’s OWL!)
Happy blogging, my friends!