Pausing to Punctuate: Colons


A reader asked if I could possibly do a posting on colons (:) and semi-colons (;). In deference to that request, I have decided to postpone my posting on gapping and bracketing commas to a later date. However, I will only attempt to deal with colons in this posting; semi-colons are quite involved and will require an entire and separate posting.

The good news is that colons are fairly easy to use correctly since they have only one major role. As such, this posting will not be too difficult to follow. But first, here are some ground rules:

  • Colons are never preceded by a white space
  • Colons are always followed by a white space
  • Colons (regardless of what we may have seen) are never followed by a hyphen.

So, what does the colon (the punctuation mark) do? Think of it this way: it indicates that what follows it is an explanation of what preceded it. Huh? Perhaps an explanation is in order:

He is clear on what he is looking for in a bride: virginity.

Here, virginity explains what he is looking for in a bride. Whether or not this is realistic (or even achievable) is a different matter altogether. The important thing is that the part that follows the colon explains that part that preceded it. Here’s another example:

He is now miserable again: his wife has come back from her business trip.

Again, the part after the colon (his wife is back) explains the part that came before it (his being miserable again).

Take note that the part that comes before the colon must always be a complete sentence. However, the bit that explains (i.e. the bit that comes after the colon) doesn’t have to be. It can be a single word (virginity, in the earlier example), or it can even be a list. For example:

I blame only three people for all my miseries: me, myself and I.

I used to start the part after the colon with a capital letter. However, I have since found out that this is how Americans do it. British usage, on the other hand, does not require us to start the part that follows the colon with a capital letter. So now–after having found out how to do it right–I no longer start it with a capital letter.

OK, people! Go have fun with your colon.

14 thoughts on “Pausing to Punctuate: Colons

  1. Mat

    Again I was rudely awakened at this unearthly hour. And I don’t live beside a railway line.

    And you are looking for virginity in a bride. 2,000 years after Cleopatra seduced both Caesar and Mark Antony. You must have planned for me to hijack your topic, didn’t you?

    This man can make interesting stories out of dots, commas, colons and the like. You smart devil. Without you, I would have gone on a rampage at 4 o’clock in the morning.

    Cheers, mate.

    Dry humour

    Thank you, sir. As always, the pleasure was all mine.

  2. Dear Sir,

    Thanks for the lesson in colon usage. I was never really sure how it is supposed to be used (the British way, of course). You have enlightened me.

    Soraya Darwina

    Always glad to be of help, ma’am.

  3. Dear Menteri Pelajaran Malaysia,
    Here we got a man whom is willing to serve the nation well to school children.

    Pleased Help!!!


    You should have a colony by now mate.

    After Za’ab ‘Pelita Bahasa’ printed to 6th edition and I still have the Ist.edition published in 1951 pass over by my arwah Tok Wak and am sure your Arwah Nenek and Tan Sri Kontek Kamariah refers to it too,
    I can’t find any fine grammatical text in English by any Malaysia for Malaysian.
    Perhaps,well,you could read my mind!!

    The grammatical lesson reminds of arwah Pok Teh ,stern verb and past present tense,past future or what not.
    I suppose an average Joe like me concerned most is to get the message across.

    I leave the correction to people like you,Salleh Ben Joned or Adibah Amin.

    Cio.Keep beating esq.

    Pak Tuo

    Thanks, man!

  4. Sir,

    “He is clear on what he is looking for in a bride: virginity.”

    You need more than colons or semi colons for that particular statement..nothing but a full fledged colonic preferably with sulphuric acid will suffice for the transgression.

    Anyway,if you need that little piece of tissue that bad,I can refer you to a good cosmetic surgeon in Pudu.


    Nah! I have no need for a piece of tissue nor a plastic surgeon–transgression(?) notwithstanding.

    Have a nice day, too, ma’am.

  5. Thank you AbgKai, but am thinking of sticking to commas until I decide to enter a writing competition: probably never will. (probably wrong usage that).
    Please correct me, teacher.


    Your usage is spot-on, ma’am.

    Now go and enter that competition!

  6. Mr MB,

    i never realized that colons can be interesting until now. Thank you.

    Dear sarahc, the cosmetic surgeon in Pudu has shifted his business to Putrajaya…..


    Thank you, sir. I never thought they were interesting either: until I had to write about them.

  7. After you are through with English whatcamacallit term for punctuation, comma, colons and semi colons, you shd continue with Arabic – baris atas, baris bawah, baris tengah, sabdu, mati …

    And I’ve been reciting the Quran and khatam puloh kali, but can never figure out how long are those harakah, dua or enam?

    A Voice

    Er… uhm…

    Bro! This is way out of my league. It’s like tying to squeeze milk out of a fish!

  8. Hahahaha…
    For the first time ever I see Mat B ‘menggelabah”
    Aparaaa Voice, the poor man is gasping!

    Puteri Kamaliah

    I’m off now to the madrasah (do they still call it this?) to brush-up on my alif-baa-taa.

  9. Mat

    They say these days virginity lies in the frigid and the God forbid. (Hope I won’t be taken to task for this).

    Celibacy is no longert the buzzword among people. Not even the nuns, the monks and the non-aspiring Rear Admirals. Months at sea or in secluded mountain spots take their toll.

    Sorry for hijacking your topic again, old chap. I trust you have a liberal readership that tolerates my antics.

    Enjoy the remaining lunch break.

    Dry Humour

    I trust most of the readers are fairly liberal. Of course, there will be one or two anal-retentives. But this can’t be helped. We’ll just treat them as politely as we can and go on or merry way. How’s that?

  10. “They say these days virginity lies in the frigid …”

    another candidate for a colonic…and make that with a cocktail of sulphuric acid and castor oil.
    Good thing you added that “rear admiral” bit to compensate the bias to a more gender neutral position.



    Colonic seems to be the order of the day, eh?

    But I don’t think anybody means any harm: just tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness to sooth the day’s stress.

  11. Hi Matt,

    Colons open brackets on this subject matter.

    Semi colons closed brackets wink wink on Sex…………he’s still alive & kicking & drooling & panting & full of enthusiasm. Nice doggie2.

    I’m guilty as charged;- no contest on this issue:-

    • Colons (regardless of what we may have seen) are never followed by a hyphen.

    You can blardy oaf says this again:-

    • He is now miserable again: his wife has come back from her business trip.




    Glad to know Sex is still alive, kicking, drooling, panting and full of enthusiasm.

    Is it safe to say that his wife his not back yet from her business trip?

  12. Next: write about colonoscopy or colonic irrigation eh?


    Btw, very informative piece of post!


    When sarahC gets her wish and gets one of these done on me, I’ll be in a better position to write about it–sulphuric acid, castor oil and all! 🙂

  13. Mat

    Lucky there was the word “Thanks” at the end of sarahc’s comment. It sort of ameliorated my sense of .. never mind.

    She knows it was a fair comment, not aimed at anybody specific. But I wonder how sulphuric acid and castor oil tastes. Anything like bamkula kurapik? Swahili for meshed roots, herbs and … guess what you like.

    I must not appear here too often. Familiarity breeds … can I say babies? I’ve been using exclamation marks and question marks lately – must try to reassert my self confidence.

    Off to try beat the traffic jam. Cheers.

    Dry humour

    Oh, no! How can Dry Humour not make his celebrated appearances on this blog anymoe? It’s people like you, Higashi-san, Tommy, Kak Teh, Puteri, and Halim (amongst others) who make this blog. I liken my postings to just the broccoli, peas and carrots. The meat and potatoes are you people!

    The writer is never greater than his readers.

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