Friday 7 May 2010

Punctuation (The Colon)

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:

• lists
• questions
• explanations
• conclusions
• descriptions
• quotations
• definitions
• 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.

By using the colon, there is a build-up of tension that entices the reader (what does he want to tell me?), followed by the breathless wait of the colon and, violá, the firmly stated “I love you”. It’s as if the magician has whipped away the curtain to shine a spotlight directly on the “I love you” to make the phrase stand out from the other words in a way it didn’t in the first example. Coming after the colon, there is a finality to the statement that leaves no doubt about the depth of the speaker’s feelings.

(And did you notice how I used the colon to introduce the list of examples?)

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


CA Heaven said...

Another nice post Judy.
But, what the Hell; I'm still addicted to the semi-colon >:)))

Cold As Heaven

Claire Robyns said...

Ooh, I love the colon. Interesting, during my latest edits, all my colons were edited out as being against the HQN style rules. I wonder why, because I totally agree that used in moderation, the colon is a wonderful tool.

Enjoy your trip and say hi to the mother city for me :)

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

HEAVEN: I put that quip about addiction in especially with you in mind! :):)

CLAIRE: That's interesting about your latest HQN edits removing all colons. Poor little colon...well, I love it too! Will take a deep breath of fresh Cape air and think of you!

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Judy. I have come to value your well crafted posts on the nut and bolts of grammar and style. I always look forward to reading them.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Ah, the dash is one of my favorites, so I'll have to wait until you post on that. This is a fantastic, helpful post. Thank you!

I want to tell you this: you are amazing!

CA Heaven said...

I like the dash too; I use it a lot - in math >:)

Cold As Heaven