The colon is one of those punctuation tools that people tell you not to use if you’re not sure how to use it correctly. One problem: people think they know how to use it when they don’t. Which leads to the most common colon error ever – and, no, I’m not being as dramatic as you think. I see this colon error every single day, and it drives me crazy.
Wondering what the most common colon error is? Let me give you an example.
The correct way to use a colon never includes:
- What I just did [coming between a verb and its direct object(s)]
- Interrupting a thought (especially a sentence)
For some reason, people think that if you have a line that leads up to a list, the line ends with a colon. Maybe, or maybe not. It depends on the line. If the line is a complete sentence, then sure. Use a colon or a period. If the line is only part of a sentence (like the one in the example above), then DON’T USE A COLON!
Yes, colons are used with lists, but colons should not be used after a verb – unless the sentence ends with the verb. A colon should not interrupt a sentence unless quotes are involved (which interrupt the sentence anyway), yet I see this happening over and over again.
So what makes this so hard?
It’s like people remember that colons go with lists, but not the other half of the rule. They think, “It’s a list, and it looks funny to have the word hanging out there by itself without the rest of the sentence to finish it. I know! I’ll add a colon!”
If you want to add anything (if you can’t stand leaving the last word before the list alone by itself before hitting that “Bulleted list” button), add an ellipse. Technically, it’s not necessary, but it is correct.
If you want to use a colon correctly, use…
- An ellipse instead of a colon after a verb that doesn’t end the sentence (like I just did)
- A colon after a complete sentence before a list
See that? That’s ok. That’s not a colon error. Here’s another correct way to use a colon.
These are my top colon errors to avoid:
- Using a colon between a verb and its direct object(s)
- Interrupting a thought with a colon
Notice how the line before the list is a complete thought – even though it ends with the verb (ok, it’s an infinitive phrase, but to people who don’t remember what that is, it’s a verb). If you replaced the colon with a period, the statement would still make sense.
That’s how you know it’s ok to use the colon. That’s how you avoid making the most common colon error ever.