The Colon - Punctuation for Students

Writing | Grammar | English in Use


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The colon is the two dots, one above the other: few people seem to know how to use it, and most, consequently, don’t. Many writers believe that the colon has only one purpose: to introduce a list. This lesson aims to put your right as to the use of the colon.

The colon is the two dots, one above the other: few people seem to know how to use it, and most, consequently, don’t. Many writers believe that the colon has only one purpose: to introduce a list. You can see from that last sentence, and the title of this lesson, that this assumption is erroneous, to say the least. Until the advent of moveable type printing in the 1450s, punctuation had been a mixture of marks borrowed from the Greeks through to the Medieval scribes. Moveable type fixed punctuation in the form we know today. Writers originally used the colon to mark almost any pause less than a full stop. By 1589, the colon was described as marking a pause: twice as long as a comma. William Bullokar wrote in 1616 that the colon was: “A marke of a sentence not fully ended which is made with two prickes.” By 1748, J. Mason in his book Elocution, felt that a colon was part of a series of pauses: A Comma stops the Voice while we may privately tell one, a Semi-colon two; a Colon three: and a Period four. What he meant was that when speaking, you should count to yourself: one, two, three, after a colon. In 1824, in his book, English Grammar, Lindley Murray proclaimed: “The Colon is used to divide a sentence into two or more parts, less connected than those which are separated by a semicolon.” Murray had nailed it: explaining the colon succinctly. Colons can be used to introduce a list like this: full stop, comma, exclamation mark, semicolon, and apostrophe. A colon can also be used to introduce a definition: a concise explanation of the meaning of a word. You can use a colon to introduce an explanation: this video was made to help you learn to use the colon correctly. Colons are used to show the natural effect or consequence of something previously said: the selfsame thing I am doing here. I can use a comma to show the parts of the whole, like the videos I have already made in this series: the full stop, the comma, and the exclamation mark. The title of this video English lesson, The Colon: Punctuation for Students, uses an appositive colon. I had to use it really: it’s part of the lesson. That’s how you use the colon: to introduce a series, an example, a definition, or an explanation.

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