Two weeks ago, I wrote about the much maligned and unjustly despised semicolon. Okay, that was kind of biased wasn’t it? It’s pretty clear that you’ll have to pry my semicolon out of my cold, dead hands.
If you don’t like semicolons, maybe I can tempt you with a regular colon? Stronger than a semicolon, weaker than a period, the colon isn’t a commonly used punctuation mark. But because it’s so strong, it really stands out when it is used.
The rules for colons are actually fairly simple.
The part before the colon must be a complete sentence. If you can substitute a period for the colon, then the colon is okay.
The wealthy knight had a stable full of horses, but he favored three of them:
Because you can put a period after the word ‘them’, a colon is acceptable there. If you said,
The wealthy knight’s favorite horses are:
You would be using the colon improperly. “The wealthy knight’s favorite horses are” is an incomplete sentence, so you need to use some other punctuation there or complete the sentence in some fashion.
Here’s my caveat: This rule is the technical rule, but in my opinion, it’s okay to use a colon after a fragment if you would have intentionally used a fragment there to begin with. Fragments are great tools in fiction, and if you use them well, I don’t see why you can’t use a colon after them. But, you can see why you’d have to be very careful with that caveat where colons are concerned. The incomplete sentence example above is clearly improper.
The part after the colon can be either a complete sentence or an incomplete sentence.
The wealthy knight had a stable full of horses, but he favored three of them: the white palfrey, the black destrier, and the sorrel stallion of no particular parentage.
The wealthy knight had a stable full of horses, but he favored three of them: He usually rode the white palfrey, the black destrier, or the sorrel stallion of no particular parentage.
Use one space after the colon. I know, I know—we were all taught two spaces after colons and periods, but these days, one space will suffice. (Unless you still use a typewriter, in which case we’ll let you use two spaces and hope that you join us in the 21st Century soon.)
Capitalize the piece after the colon only if it’s a complete sentence. If you have a complete sentence, you can either capitalize the first word or not—it’s up to you and/or any style guide you’re following. So in the second example above, you can either capitalize the “he” after the colon or not—either is acceptable.
Do not capitalize the piece after the colon if that piece is an incomplete sentence. In the first example above, the word “the” after the colon starts a serial list that cannot stand by itself, so you should not capitalize it.
Now that we’ve reviewed the rules, when is it okay to use a colon?
I’m of the opinion that colons should be used infrequently and with great care in fiction. There’s a great deal of power in that little punctuation mark. It fairly shouts at the reader, “the part that comes next is important, y’all, so pay attention!” Use it too often, and it dilutes the power of the mark when you do use it. But—there are some times when it’s a really helpful little mark.
Introducing a quote. Normally, you would probably use a comma to introduce dialogue.
He said, “Have you ever been dancing in a cow pasture? Be careful where you step.”
But if you really wanted to emphasize something important, you could use a colon.
She stood up, gave a dramatic toss of her hair, and replied: “I wouldn’t dance with you in a field of violets. Good day, sir.”
Giving speeches or delivering ultimatums and threats. Use the colon for emphasis when you have a character giving a significant speech to another character or group of characters. It can help break up the flow of the dialogue on the page, and if you place it properly, you’ll give the piece that comes after it some special emphasis.
His eyes narrowed. “I do not come to negotiate. I come to warn: Stay out of the forest, or suffer the sting of a tribal spear in the heart of your country.”
You could use a period there. Either is fine. But the colon connects the thoughts—it says to the other character “here’s my warning—pay attention.” It’ll say that to the reader, too.
Emphasizing two connected thoughts. Okay, yes, a colon should always connect two thoughts. But sometimes, you can use it to emphasize that what comes next is the answer to what comes first.
We have a saying: The man who wishes for rain sometimes suffers from flood.
The colon tells your reader that the next thing is the answer to the first thing. A period just wouldn’t have the same effect there. It would be grammatically correct, but it would be clunky—it wouldn’t make the connection as clear in the reader’s head.
I don’t think there’s as much vitriol in the writing, editing, and publishing community about the colon, and perhaps that’s because it’s so much less ambiguous than the semicolon. But just because it’s easier to use doesn’t mean you should be careless with it. The colon is like a literary firecracker: It snaps your reader to attention and tells him something really important is coming. Anything with that much power should be used with intention and care.