Wednesday Writing Tip: The Colon

Dear Master’s Programs student,

Last time we looked at ways reading can strengthen writing; this week, we’ll discuss something a little more practical: the colon. We’re all accustomed to seeing colons on a digital clocks (I’m composing this at 8:15 a.m.). They’re also familiar to many people as a separation of chapter and verse in religious texts (think of John 3:16 hidden under your In-N-Out soda cup). And of course, the colon is much beloved for supplying the eyes to our emoticons. : )

But in academic writing, these are probably the least common applications of this versatile mark of punctuation. Oftentimes in academic writing, the colon is used to introduce a list (typically a list of more than two items, or a list wherein the items are of significant length). When using the colon in this way, be sure that a complete sentence precedes the colon. For example,

Some uses of the colon are: to separate minutes from hours, to provide eyes for emoticons, and to introduce a list, is wrong. Note that the underlined portion is not really a complete sentence.

A better version of this sentence would look something like this: There are several uses for the colon: to separate minutes from hours, to provide eyes for emoticons, and to introduce a list. (See that the underlined words there could be written as a stand-alone sentence?)

You may have also noticed that in the first sentence of this letter there is a different kind of colon. I’ll call it the explanatory colon, for lack of a better name. The explanatory colon is preceded by a slightly ambiguous sentence, and is followed by (no surprise) an explanation or clarification. You can think of the explanatory colon as saying “Here’s what I mean.”

This week, we’ll discuss something a little more practical: the colon. See how what follows the colon clarifies exactly what we’ll discuss this week?

After years of careful observation, Goodall made a startling discovery: chimpanzees use tools just as humans do. In this example, the words after the colon clarify what Goodall’s discovery was.

Try including a colon or two in your next assignment!

Happy writing,
James

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s