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Punctuation: Colon – What is a colon and how to use it

Punctuation: Colon – What is a colon and how to use it

The colon (:) marks a bigger pause than that is expressed by the semicolon. It is sometimes used with a dash after it.

  • We cancelled our decision to go on a holiday: we had too little money.
  • Jane had to be hospitalized: she had heart trouble.

Direct speech

A colon is used when famous sayings are quoted.

  • Bacon says: ‘Reading makes a full man, writing an exact man, speaking a ready man.’

A colon is also used when direct speech is introduced by a name.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

In other cases, direct speech is usually introduced by a comma.

  • Peter looked at the photo and said, ‘Who is this beautiful girl?’


A colon can introduce a list.

  • The three tenses are: the present tense, the past tense and the future tense.
  • We need three kinds of support: financial, political and moral.

In a title or heading, a colon is often used to introduce a subdivision of a subject.

  • Tenses: the present tense
  • Punctuation: colon

Capital letters

In British English, we do not normally use a capital letter after a colon. In American English, colons are more often followed by capital letters.

  • Verbs: transitive verbs (GB)
  • Verbs: Transitive verbs (US)


In letters Americans usually put a colon after the opening salutation.

Dear Mr. Mathews:
I am writing to…

British people prefer a comma in this case. Sometimes they do not use any punctuation mark at all.

Dear Mr Mathews,
I am writing to…