Grammar Hammer: What’s Scarier Than Friday the 13th? Rules of Colon Usage

What’s scarier than Friday the 13th?  The rules of colon usage. So today we’ll master our fears by understanding how to use colons with examples inspired by the movie “Friday the 13th.”

Colons are most commonly used to introduce what follows. Use a colon when the first part of a sentence is an introduction, lead-in or buildup to the second part.

Usage 1: Implicit Questions

A sentence can consist of an implied question and its answer — the first part raises a question, and the remaining words respond to it. The colon acts as the dividing line.

Note that the first part of the sentence must be an independent clause (that is, it must be able to stand alone). It doesn’t matter if the second part of the sentence is independent or dependent.

  • It’s easy to become a counselor at Camp Crystal Lake: all they do is run through the woods.
  • Head counselor is a highly regarded position: Just ask Kevin Bacon.

Here’s what happens if the first part of the sentence is a fragment (dependent):

  • In a word, Jason is: merciless.

But there’s an exception. If a fragment can stand alone and does not require anything else to complete its meaning, or if it is a single word being defined, then you can put a colon after it.

  • A word of caution: Look out for Jason’s relatives too.
  • Slasher: a movie that draws you in with the promise of gratuitous sex and violence

Usage 2: Lists or Series

Use a colon to introduce a list or series. (This is actually a continuation of the first rule, because it is still in a question-and-answer format.)

The list can be laid out horizontally:

  • A few things make Jason scary: his machete, his mask and his breathing problem.

Or the list can be laid out vertically:

  • Some items to bring with you if you are hired at Camp Crystal Lake:
  • running shoes
  • cellphone
  • tourniquet

Written by Grace Lavigne, editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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