Like a semicolon, a colon can connect two independent clauses, but it has several other uses as well. Colons, like semicolons, should be used sparingly.
Joining Independent Clauses
A semicolon or colon joining two independent clauses signals a connection between them. When a semicolon is used, the nature of that connection is variable: the connection may be causal, sequential, oppositional, and so on. A colon, however, connects two clauses in a specific way, indicating that the second clause expands on the first. It alerts the reader to read on for an explanation or expansion of the first clause:
In that instant Brandon made a decision: he would fly to Toronto and propose to Sean.
Silvia slumped in her chair and closed her eyes: she had never felt so dejected.
Introducing a Series or List
Use a colon with the phrases as follows and the following.
To make a cake you need the following ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.
Combine the ingredients as follows: first, cream the butter with the sugar; second, add the eggs and milk; third, add the flour, leavener, and salt.
Use a colon before a series or list only if the words that introduce the list make up a complete sentence:
To make a cake you need a few basic ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.
If the words before the colon do not constitute a sentence, do not use a colon:
To make a cake you need butter, sugar, eggs, milk, flour, leavener, and salt.
Introducing Related Sentences
A colon may be used to introduce a series of related sentences:
Karen had the plan all worked out: She would take Dawn out to dinner for her birthday. While Karen and Dawn had dinner, Teresa would meet the guests at Karen’s house. Then Karen would bring Dawn to the house after dinner. Surprise!
A series of related questions is likewise introduced by a colon:
Karen started to worry: Would Teresa remember to pick up the cake? Would the guests arrive on time? And what would Karen do if Dawn wanted to go home after dinner?
Use colons to introduce a quotation when it is not integrated into the syntax of your sentence or otherwise requires a formal introduction:
Nabokov opens his autobiography with a statement on mortality: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
But use a comma after a verb of saying (e.g., says, exclaims, notes, writes):
As Nabokov writes, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
No punctuation is needed when the quotation is integrated into the syntax of your prose:
Nabokov writes that life is “a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
See the MLA Handbook 1.3.2 on using a colon to introduce block quotations.
Introducing a Rule or Principle
Use a colon to introduce the formal expression of a rule or principle:
Many books would be briefer if their authors followed the logical principle known as Occam’s razor: Explanations should not be multiplied unnecessarily.
Lowercase or Capital Letter after a Colon?
Use a lowercase letter when the word that follows the colon is normally lowercased:
Bonnie had to admit what was already obvious to her roommates: she was allergic to the cat.
Use a capital letter when the colon introduces
- a rule or principle
- several related sentences
- a capitalized word such as a proper noun
A Common Mistake
Do not use a colon after for example, that is, and namely. Use a comma instead:
There are many ways to flavor a cake—for example, with vanilla, with lemon or orange zest, or with cinnamon.
Olive or coconut oil can be substituted for butter in a vegan cake (that is, one made without animal products).
Cakes made with grated vegetables—namely, carrot cakes and zucchini cakes—stay moist for days.
Take the Quiz
Test yourself with our colon quiz!
Brenda Palokangas 25 September 2017 AT 10:09 AM
This is a great resource, but I found the "Lowercase or Capital Letter after a Colon?" section confusing because you seem to go against the rules in your examples. Could you clarify that rule?
Erika Suffern 25 September 2017 AT 11:09 AM
Thanks for noticing that! It was a typo, which we fixed. The post now instructs writers to use a capital letter in those instances.
Linda caniano 29 December 2017 AT 06:12 AM
Should a colon introduce a single author, for example, "written by: Linda"? This seems to be common practice in schools, and lately I have seen it in print an on TV.
Erika Suffern 02 January 2018 AT 09:01 AM
Thanks for your question, Linda. No, you would not use a colon in that example: "written by Linda" would be correct.
Ros 06 February 2018 AT 08:02 AM
Should a colon be usedvat the end of the below statement preceding the vertical list and should each first word be caputalized?
The three stages are
1) dealing with darkness
2) bringing an end to disorder
3) reviving the planet
Erika Suffern 06 February 2018 AT 04:02 PM
Hi, Ros. Do not use a colon because "The three stages are" is not a complete sentence. The items do not need to be capitalized.
Jean 13 February 2018 AT 03:02 PM
You don't specify whether a quotation after a colon that begins with a lowercase letter in the original but is a grammatically complete sentence should be capitalized or lowercased. Which?? Using your example, here is my question:
Nabokov writes: "C/common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light."
Jean 13 February 2018 AT 05:02 PM
Also, and related, what about after a verb of saying, then do you change a lowercase word in the original to capital, as in, "As Nabokov notes, 'Common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light.'"? Or would that be, "As Nabokov notes, 'common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light.'"?
Jean 14 February 2018 AT 02:02 PM
One more related question: what about when you quote something that's capitalized in the original but it's integrated into your syntax, e.g., "Everyone knows that since 'the cradle rocks above an abyss,' punctuation doesn't really matter that much."
Jean 06 April 2018 AT 01:04 PM
#4 and #5 should be capitalized and #6 should be lowercased--those are typically the correct answers, but my question is, what is MLA style on these? I don't believe you stipulate the answers to these questions in your book, but I've worked with authors who vehemently believe that you do, so please, please spell out what you want people to do in these cases.
Tamer 20 November 2018 AT 01:11 AM
It has made an appearance in the popular television show The Big Bang Theory.
should we use a colon before The Big Bang Theory?
and why. Thank you in advance
Erika Suffern 20 November 2018 AT 10:11 AM
No punctuation is needed before "The Big Bang Theory" in your sentence.
Caryl 07 January 2021 AT 12:01 PM
Erika, the only thing left out of your list of colon rules is something that often occurs on the ACT tests. I have put some examples below.
I think about this food all the time: sushi.
The illusion results from one specific addition to the process: dust.
Michael 16 January 2019 AT 05:01 AM
Hello, I'd like to know what if I want to cite in superscript near a colon, is
"A List^:" or "A List:^" more correct? Or would they be plain out wrong? Thanks in advance
Erika Suffern 16 January 2019 AT 10:01 AM
A superscripted note reference belongs after a colon. The first preference should be to place the note reference at the end of a sentence; place it after a colon only when it refers specifically to what precedes preceding the colon and not to what follows it.
Robin 07 June 2019 AT 05:06 PM
Is there one or two spaces after a colon?
Erika Suffern 10 June 2019 AT 08:06 AM
Ed Taylor 22 July 2019 AT 01:07 PM
I often see a colon after the word "by" but my references say never use a colon after a preposition. Thus, a presentation title slide "The poetry of Wendell Berry" by: Ed Taylor would be wrong, as would "Added to the library by: StudySync." Still true?
Jessica Holman 07 August 2019 AT 01:08 PM
I was wondering if the use of the colon in the example below is correct.
To make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, follow these steps:
1. Get two slices of bread
2. etc. etc.
Spirit 12 March 2020 AT 11:03 AM
MLA disallows the use of a colon after _namely_, but does it allow its use in place of _namely_? For example, _There is only one cake made with grated vegetables that I like: carrot cake_.
Erika Suffern 13 March 2020 AT 08:03 AM
The usage you show is fine. Thanks for asking.
Judith Halsey 23 April 2020 AT 10:04 PM
Hello and thanks in advance.
I'm editing something and think this sentence needs neither its colon or semicolon (although it's long). Am I correct?
“… my goals remain the same: to trace the origins of negative depictions of Africa and the economic motives behind them; and to fight the stereotypical racist representations of African people and African descendants that still persist in contemporary media and the cover-ups that go with them."
Erika Suffern 28 April 2020 AT 08:04 AM
The semicolon is not needed. Where you have a colon, some form of punctuation is needed there, but if you don't want to use a colon a dash could be used. A colon seems the best choice.
Melanie 27 April 2020 AT 04:04 PM
Can I uppercase after a colon if it is an independent clause?
Erika Suffern 28 April 2020 AT 07:04 AM
Generally, no. See the examples and guidelines in the post.
Dan Todd 06 May 2020 AT 07:05 AM
Hello, where is the colon in the sentence:
As Jane Friday noted in her "My Secret Garden": "I was beginning to believe..."
As Jane Friday noted in her "My Secret Garden:" "I was beginning to believe..."
Bivek Sah 16 May 2020 AT 01:05 PM
Hello there. I have got a query: can a sentence have two colons?
Erika Suffern 22 May 2020 AT 05:05 PM
It's best for a sentence to have only one colon.
Stephanie 19 May 2020 AT 10:05 PM
Can a colon be used to introduce news?
I have exciting news: I'm pregnant!
Would this be correct?
Erika Suffern 22 May 2020 AT 05:05 PM
Yes. That would fall under the first usage discussed in the post: connecting two independent clauses.
Andy Lee 27 May 2020 AT 04:05 AM
Thank you for your explanation.
I have a question about using colon in the title of paper.
If there is a colon which is followed by "the"(article), is it correct not to capitalize the "t"?
MLA Handbook: the Best Book for Students
Thank you for your help in advance.
Erika Suffern 27 May 2020 AT 08:05 AM
Yes, capitalize the first letter of the first word of a subtitle that follows a colon, even if that word is an article.
eric 04 June 2020 AT 01:06 PM
Hello ! Here's my question : which of the following ways to introduce a question is correct ?
a) This raises the following question : To what extent did the Obama Administration succeed in.....?
b) This raises the following question : to what extent did the Obama Administration succeed in.....? ( note the lowercase)
c)This raises the following question, To what extent did the Obama Administration succeed in.....? ( comma instead of colon )
d)This raises the following question, to what extent did the Obama Administration succeed in.....?
Thank you for your help !
Erika Suffern 31 August 2020 AT 08:08 AM
Check out our post on direction questions in sentences: https://style.mla.org/direct-question-in-a-sentence/
eric 10 September 2020 AT 03:09 PM
Thank you very much for pointing me in the right direction , I had not consulted that web page : it clearly answered all my questions!
Carla Israel 11 October 2020 AT 10:10 AM
Should there be a colon or a comma inserted after Harbour Station in this sentence.
The home of the Sea Dogs is Harbour Station located at 99 Station Street, Saint John.
Mendy Hecht 04 January 2022 AT 05:01 PM
For the following example sentence (headline, actually), where would I find the rules on usage/placement of the colon?
"No link to hospital patient records for most U.S. EMS services: report."
Or is it supposed to be: "Report: no link to hospital patient records for most U.S. EMS services."
In other words, where does one place the word "report"?
Nicole 14 March 2022 AT 09:03 AM
Is it appropriate to use a colon after the words "because" or "it"? For example, the following sentences. "He argues that she is a bad dog because: 1) she pees on the floor, 2) she digs in the yard, and 3) she runs after cars." "The cake is easy to make because it: 1) only has five ingredients, 2) only uses one bowl, and 3) only takes 15 minutes to bake." Thank you for your help!
Erika Suffern 15 March 2022 AT 09:03 AM
No, colons are not used in those cases, because what precedes the "because" or the "it" is not an indendepent clause. The post says, "Use a colon before a series or list only if the words that introduce the list make up a complete sentence."
Steven Harvey 22 December 2022 AT 04:12 PM
Since middle school (they called in junior high in my day) I'd always thought that the word after a colon is always capitalized if the colon introduces an independent clause and always lower case if the colon introduces a dependent clause, unless, of course, the dependent clause begins with a proper noun. This has the advantage of being easy to remember. If I were to follow the capitalization rules you provide above, I would probably have to look them up every time. Why should grammar be so obtuse?
But my real question is: D/does the rule you mention belong to the inalterable rules promulgated by the Great Grammarian in the Sky or is it part of MLA style such that it could vary in some other style guide (grammar does contain some ambiguous issues that two different grammarians could legitimately resolve differently).
Also, when did "lower case" become a verb? I'm familiar with the term "capitalized," but I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen the term "lower cased." I would have thought it should be "put/left in lower case."
Rosanne Rodriguez 09 May 2023 AT 01:05 PM
should there be a colon after this in an invitation ....
and then there will be a series of individuals first and last names after "hosted by".
not sure if Hosted by should also contain initial cap for both of these two words ?
Thank you !
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