Where to Use a Colon–for Meter Readers and Others

Six meter readers attended my Keys to Error-Free Writing class. Given their job of traipsing around outside reading electric meters, they don’t write much. But all of them were interested in learning more about business writing.

If you write a lot, using some punctuation marks is second nature to you. You many never think about the periods, commas, and apostrophes that dot your writing. But for the meter readers, who have not thought much about punctuation since leaving the classroom, each mark held surprises.

The colon was one such surprise.

Colon? Sure, a colon appears in places like 2:30 p.m. and 1:4 ratio and Dear Mr. Brown:

But in a sentence?

Yes. The colon is a wonderful punctuation mark that tells the reader “Get ready. Here it is” or “Here they are.” I think of the colon as the drumroll that promises the immediate arrival of something or someone.

These colons say “And here it is” or “And here they are” after the sentence of introduction:

She is available on only one day: Monday, November 16.

We have narrowed our choices down to two candidates: Nadia Brunei and Klaus Bieber.

The fee includes the following items: materials, follow-up, and travel.

Two options are available to us: flying, at a cost of $250 per person, or taking the bus, which costs about $80 per person.

But where would a meter reader or someone who does not write much on the job use a colon?

There are lots of places where a colon fits naturally in day-to-day personal messages. I offer these examples:

Kelli has asked for three things for Christmas: a North Face jacket, an IPod gift card, and the last book in the Twilight series.

People have already volunteered to bring these things to dinner: pumpkin pie, green salad, dinner rolls, and corn soufflé.

Here is Grandma’s new address: ___________.

You know where they always go on vacation: Disneyworld.

These are his exact words: “She doesn’t understand me.”

If you are thinking you can live without the colon, you are right. The sentences above can survive without them, like this:

Kelli has asked for a North Face jacket, an IPod gift card, and the last book in the Twilight series for Christmas.

People have already volunteered to bring pumpkin pie, green salad, dinner rolls, and corn soufflé to dinner.

Grandma’s new address is ___________.

You know they always go to Disneyworld on vacation.

His exact words were “She doesn’t understand me.”

But the colon offers a setup, an introduction, a signal that says, “Pay attention. Here comes the information.” That is why I encourage you, meter readers and others, to welcome the colon into your personal and professional writing. It’s the drumroll that gets your readers’ attention.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Where to Use a Colon–for Meter Readers and Others”

  • Lynn:

    It seems that people have gotten pretty comfortable with the colon, especially since the use of bulletpoints became so common.

    I would argue that the semicolon is sorely underused. Many people write run-on sentences rather than creating a fluid transition between two complete sentences with the help of the semicolon.


  • I am glad to see your encouraging the use of the colon. Too often, writers replace a colon with more lazy marks of punctuation: the dash or (worse) a comma.

  • Mike, you are right that the semicolon is underused. I have written about it on this blog.

    I find that once people understand that the semicolon connects two closely related sentences that the reader should read together, they can use it correctly. With the colon, though, there is the question of where it belongs. It seems trickier–not when introducing a list of bullet points, but within a sentence.


    Alfredo, I agree the dash often appears in the rightful place of the colon. Thanks for that reminder.


    Murray, borrow on!

  • Hi, Lynn. Just catching up on past posts. I notice that in all your examples the colon serves as “final punctuation” for an independent clause, and I agree with that. But what do you think about (mis)using the colon after a dependent clause just because it is followed by bullets or a list? For example, “For Christmas Kelli has asked for: a North Face jacket, an iPod gift card and the last book in the Twilight series.” Some of my clients seem to believe that a colon must mark the end of the line (“The boy’s classmates are:”) or that the word “includes” automatically gets the colon (“This list includes:”). How do you feel about that?

  • Hi, Cookie. The use you describe is incorrect unless what follows the colon is set off visually. Below are two correct examples.

    For Christmas Kelli has asked for:
    –A North Face jacket
    –An iPod Gift card
    –The last book in the Twilight series

    The cities on her itinerary include:
    –Seattle, Washington
    –Portland, Oregon
    –Vancouver, British Columbia
    –Calgary, Alberta

    Ask your clients which style guide they are following. None of my guides recommends that usage.

    Thanks for asking that question. I am sure other readers were wondering about it.


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