Colon Usage

This week, we’re going to discuss how the colon (:) is used in the English language. While the colon appears in several common sentence structures and handful of other situations, its correct use is not always fully understood by native speakers. Therefore, we are going to present a series of clear, concise rules for colon usage that both native and non-native speakers of English can benefit from.

Colon Usage in Sentences

Colons are used to set up lists, appositives, and direct quotations. All three of these situations are variations on the same rule: what comes after the colon describes or explains an idea that came before the colon. (The previous sentence is itself an example of this rule.)

  • To set up a list:

Please bring the following items to every class: a pen or pencil, a notebook, and your textbook.


What items do you need to bring to class?

You need to bring a pen or pencil, a notebook, and the textbook.

  • Before an appositive:

My father has a unique talent: the ability to listen to people.

What unique talent does my father have?

He has the ability to listen to people.

  • To introduce a direct quotation:

My mentor once gave me the following advice for dealing with difficult people: “You can’t control how others react to you. You can only control how you react to them.”


What advice did my mentor give me?

You can only control your own reactions.


Do not use both a colon and “such as” or “including” to introduce an idea. Colons and “such as/including” fulfill the same role in a sentence, so using both is redundant.

Likewise, only use a colon to set up a direction quotation when there is no reporting verb, such as “he said,” “she said,” or “they said.”

Other Common Uses of Colons

In addition to combining clauses, colons have a few other common uses in English. These include:

  • To introduce the subtitle of a movie, play, or work of literature:

Despite its title, Episode IV: A New Hope was the first Star Wars movie released.


  • To separate hours and minutes when writing time:

11:15 a.m.

2:30 p.m.


  • After a salutation in business correspondence:

Dear Dr. Patel:

Dear Human Resources Department: