27 July 2014

The Workhorse Punctuation Mark

When I began researching the colon, I expected to find, like the other punctuation marks, some controversy. I googled “punctuation marks colon” and got only about 30,000 hits (semicolon resulted in about 101,000 hits). The websites I visited defined the colon’s many uses and explained how to use it. I didn’t find any negative or positive articles about the little ubiquitous punctuation mark. To generate conversation don’t you need two opposing views, something to argue against? On the other hand, I could just provide information with the hope it may be useful.

The academic website of the Russia Federation says, “A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, explains, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.” Since the information is in English, I assume it is aimed at students learning to write English. The site goes on to note that an Italian Scholar, Luca Serianni, “helped to define and develop the colon as a punctuation mark, identified four punctuational modes for it: syntactical-deductive, syntactical-descriptive, appositive, and segmental.” Serianni wrote the guide for the Italian language, but the rules are applicable to English as well as many other languages.

A definition wouldn’t feel right without something from that authoritative website, Wikipedia:

The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line. A colon is used to explain or start an enumeration. A colon is also used with ratios, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in bibliographies, business letter salutation, hours and minutes, and formal letters.

More from Wikipedia: “Use of the : symbol to mark the discontinuity of a grammatical construction, or a pause of a length intermediate between that of a semicolon and that of a period, was introduced in English orthography around 1600.”

As usual, the Internet finds a way to use a punctuation mark in new ways. I turn again to the Russian academic website for an example: “A colon, or multiple colons, is sometimes used to denote an action or to emote, similarly to asterisks. In this use it has the inverse function of quotation marks, denoting actions where unmarked text is assumed to be dialogue. 
“For example: 
“Tom: Pluto is so small; it should not be considered a planet. It is tiny! Mark: Oh really? ::drops Pluto on Tom’s head:: Still think it’s small now?
“Colons may also be used for sounds, e.g. ::click::, though sounds can also be denoted by asterisks or other punctuation marks.
“Colons can also be used to represent eyes in emoticons.”

But the field that most interest me and, I think, you is English syntax. In this respect, it is used to introduce a logical consequence (syntactical-deductive); a description (syntactical-descriptive); an appositive independent clause; and the segmental i.e., introduction of speech (at one time, it did so for quotations without the marks).

I think I knew all these syntactical uses of the colon without really thinking about them. I certainly never thought about the “syntactical-deductive” or “syntactical-descriptive,” although I suspect I must have encountered the terms in one  or more of the many books on grammar I’ve read.
The colon is not neglected. It should be but is not praised for its versatility. It’s just there, always present, used without thinking, which means it’s probably occasionally misused. I probably misuse it more often than I misuse its cousin the semicolon.

In my next post, I shall return to detective stories. This punctuation stuff gives me a headache.


  1. “I confess I’ve encountered the situation of wanting to include action in the midst of dialogue,” he reeled back as Matt struck his chin, “as opposed to dialogue in the midst of action.” He rubbed his sore jaw. “I use existing punctuation to pause the sentence,” he ducked as Matt swung again, “and add the bits showing action.”

  2. Surprisingly interesting article and I didn't expect to be education in English by a Russian!

    I’m glad they mentioned ratios. Usually we see them mathematically in the form 3:6 :: 1:2, which reads “3 is to 6 as 1 is to 2” and can be written as 3/6 = 1/2. In other words, a single : means “is to” and a double :: means “as”. Although we don’t see ordinary sentences with this notation, similar expressions can be used in logic, e.g,
    years : weeks :: hours : minutes

  3. It's good to have punctuation reminders from time to time. Frankly, I get the most confused about commas when they're supposed to go in wonky places, like "I told my teacher Miss Wanda that…" Does Miss Wanda get commas or not? Glad you write these up.

  4. To me, the least confusing punctuation marks are the period and the colon. Commas are fairly easy, but can be misused. I have read many essays concerning their usage. And the semicolon is always troublesome to me.

    In any event, thanks Louis for a good read.

  5. Thanks Leigh doing what I could not--adding humor to the article on the colon.


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