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.