To express time, in titles, and as part of other writing conventions. Colons appear in several standard or conventional places in writing. Here are a few examples:
- With numbers. Colons are used to separate units of time (4:45:00 expresses four hours, forty-five minutes, and zero seconds); ratios (2:1), and Bible verses and chapters (Matthew 2:24).
- In bibliography entries. Many citation styles use a colon to separate information in bibliography entries.
- Example: Kurlansky, M. (2002). Salt: A world history. New York, NY: Walker and Co.
- With subtitles. Colons are used to separate titles from subtitles.
- Example: Everest: The Last Frontier
- After the salutation in a formal business letter. A colon can be used immediately after the greeting in a formal letter (less-formal letters tend to use a comma in this location).
To Whom it May Concern:
Please accept my application for the position advertised in the News and Observer.
Common colon mistakes
Using a colon between a verb and its object or complement
- Example (incorrect): The very best peaches are: those that are grown in the great state of Georgia.
To correct this, simply remove the colon.
Using a colon between a preposition and its object
- Example (incorrect): My favorite cake is made of: carrots, flour, butter, eggs, and cream cheese icing.
To correct this, simply remove the colon.
Using a colon after “such as,” “including,” “especially,” and similar phrases. This violates the rule that the material preceding the colon must be a complete thought. Look, for example, at the following sentence:
- Example (incorrect): There are many different types of paper, including: college ruled, wide ruled, and plain copy paper.
You can see that “There are many different types of paper, including” is not a complete sentence. The colon should simply be removed.
How to check for mistakes
Ask yourself a question: does the material preceding the colon stand on its own? One way to tell if the colon has been properly used is to look only at the words that come in front of the colon. Do they make a complete thought? If not, you may be using the colon improperly. Check above to see if you have made one of the most common mistakes.
Should you capitalize the first letter after a colon?
The first word following the colon should be lower-cased if the words after the colon form a dependent clause (that is, if they could not stand on their own as a complete sentence). If the following phrase is a complete (independent) clause, you may choose to capitalize it or not. Whichever approach you choose, be sure to be consistent throughout your paper.
- The commercials had one message: The geeks shall inherit the earth. (correct)
- The commercials had one message: the geeks shall inherit the earth. (correct)
- Example with an independent clause, showing two different approaches to capitalization:
Example with a dependent clause (which is not capitalized)
- There are three things that I love more than anything else in the world: my family, my friends, and my computer. (correct)
The first thing to know when talking about dashes is that they are almost never required by the laws of grammar and punctuation. Overusing dashes can break up the flow of your writing, making it choppy or even difficult to follow, so don’t overdo it.
It’s also important to distinguish between dashes and hyphens. Hyphens are shorter lines (-); they are most often used to show connections between words that are working as a unit (for example, you might see adjectives like “well-intentioned”) or to spell certain words (like “e-mail”).
With that background information in mind, let’s take a look at some ways to put dashes to work in your writing.
To set off material for emphasis. Think of dashes as the opposite of parentheses. Where parentheses indicate that the reader should put less emphasis on the enclosed material, dashes indicate that the reader should pay more attention to the material between the dashes. Dashes add drama—parentheses whisper. Dashes can be used for emphasis in several ways:
- Example: After eighty years of dreaming, the elderly man realized it was time to finally revisit the land of his youth—Ireland.
- Example: “The Office”—a harmless television program or a dangerously subversive guide to delinquency in the workplace?
- A single dash can emphasize material at the beginning or end of a sentence.
Two dashes can emphasize material in the middle of a sentence. Some style and grammar guides even permit you to write a complete sentence within the dashes.
- Example: Everything I saw in my new neighborhood—from the graceful elm trees to the stately brick buildings—reminded me of my alma mater.
- Example (complete sentence): The students—they were each over the age of eighteen—lined up in the streets to vote for the presidential candidates.
Two dashes can emphasize a modifier. Words or phrases that describe a noun can be set off with dashes if you wish to emphasize them.
- Example: The fairgrounds—cold and wet in the October rain—were deserted.
- Example: Nettie—her chin held high—walked out into the storm.
To indicate sentence introductions or conclusions. You can sometimes use a dash to help readers see that certain words are meant as an introduction or conclusion to your sentence.
- Example: Books, paper, pencils—many students lacked even the simplest tools for learning in nineteenth-century America.
- Example: To improve their health, Americans should critically examine the foods that they eat—fast food, fatty fried foods, junk food, and sugary snacks.
To mark “bonus phrases.” Phrases that add information or clarify but are not necessary to the meaning of a sentence are ordinarily set off with commas. But when the phrase itself already contains one or more commas, dashes can help readers understand the sentence.
- Slightly confusing example with commas: Even the simplest tasks, washing, dressing, and going to work, were nearly impossible after I broke my leg.
- Better example with dashes: Even the simplest tasks—washing, dressing, and going to work—were nearly impossible after I broke my leg.
To break up dialogue. In written dialogue, if a speaker suddenly or abruptly stops speaking, hesitates in speech, or is cut off by another speaker, a dash can indicate the pause or interruption.
- Example: “I—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” denied the politician.
- Example: Mimi began to explain herself, saying, “I was thinking—”
“I don’t care what you were thinking,” Rodolpho interrupted.
We hope that this handout has helped you better understand colons, semi-colons, and dashes! For more information about punctuation, be sure to check out our handout on commas.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout (just click print) and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill