Punctuation, like language itself, is an evolving form. Much of today’s punctuation wasn’t in existence a few centuries ago. The colon as a punctuation mark, however, was introduced in the 16th century.
What’s so important about the colon if it’s survived for nearly half a millennia? That’s because it’s a versatile punctuation mark and can introduce:
• direct speech
• subtitles or subheadings
In creative writing, however, what the colon does best is take the reader’s interest forward to the next important disclosure of information. Noah Lukeman likens the colon to a magician. It builds up the suspense, waits for just the right moment and then whips back the curtain to reveal what’s coming next.
Compare these two examples:
I want to tell you that I love you.
I want to tell you this: I love you.
The first example doesn't have the same sense of anticipation that the second one does; it’s almost a casual sentiment, expressed dispassionately.
If you never use a colon in your creative writing, it probably won’t be missed. But – as addictive as the semi-colon – the overuse of the colon can result in so many dramatic revelations on a page that it loses its impact.
When using a colon, ask yourself is this colon really necessary? It may be that the clauses are not related, or that the colon has acted as a bridge for two half-thoughts rather then leading one independent thought into another. Let the text itself dictate the use of a colon. If the sentence is inherently dramatic a colon may not be needed. You may find that, by removing a colon, your sentence flows more naturally and is less melodramatic.
Although the colon has been around for hundreds of years, recent evolution has seen it under threat from another punctuation mark – the dash, which is the subject of my next post on punctuation.
Learning about the dash will, however, have to wait until my return at the end of May. We'll be meandering down to the Mother City (Cape Town) in the car and I’ll be taking a blog break for a few weeks. Please browse the archives and make yourself at home while I'm gone. You can browse the archives in the side bar or here are some old articles you may find interesting:
What is Creativity?
In Pursuit of Excellence
The Road to Timbuktu
The Way of the Writing Warrior
Have fun and happy blogging!
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman
"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
Image by Salvatore Vuono (free on http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/)