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I understand that a colon should be used to introduce a list:

We required three ingredients: eggs, milk and butter.

However, what happens if there is a full stop between list elements?

We required three ingredients: firstly eggs, to provide a nice eggy flavour. Secondly milk, for all its milky goodness. Finally we required flour, to bind it all together.

Is this a correct way to use a colon? Does the rest of the list punctuation make sense?

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Instead of using a full stop between elements of the list I would use a semi-colon. But as I am not sure if it is the correct punctuation in this case, I'll let my pears answer this one. –  Eldroß Jan 13 '11 at 13:43
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I agree with @Eldros. I would either replace the full stops with semicolons, or leave them in place but then also replace the colon with a full stop. –  RegDwigнt Jan 13 '11 at 13:48
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

At the risk of appearing old-fashioned, it is certainly acceptable to use a colon to introduce a list split across sentences. Just be sure to start the first sentence with a capital letter:

We required three ingredients: Firstly, eggs, to provide a nice eggy flavour. Secondly, milk, for all its milky goodness. Finally, we required flour, to bind it all together.

In modern writing, first and second are preferred. The full-stops (or periods) would also give way to semi-colons:

We required three ingredients: first, eggs, to provide a nice eggy flavour; second, milk, for all its milky goodness; finally, we required flour[,] to bind it all together.

For succinctness, first, second and finally, we required are best removed, as they make the whole sentence rather wordy. Thus:

We required three ingredients: eggs, to provide a nice eggy flavour; milk, for all its milky goodness; and flour, to bind it all together.


You may notice I played around with the commas. That could also be considered a matter of style, but I tend to be fastidious with regard to comma punctuation.

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Thanks, I'll go with one of these. I suppose the length of the descriptors would decide the method to use? Long descriptors may require the first method, for example. –  Bill Cheatham Jan 13 '11 at 14:49
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I will do a full answer here for legibility. Firstly, there is nothing wrong with the sentence you have supplied. However, I agree with Eldros and RegDwight in that you could use a semi-colon.

Having said that, I would modify the sentence when I did use semi-colons, thus:

We required three ingredients: eggs, to provide a nice eggy flavour; milk, for all its milky goodness; flour, to bind it all together.

The semi-colons 'replace' the qualifying 'Firstly' etc, resulting in a punchier, more succinct sentence.

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Thanks for the suggestion. I've run into this problem as well, so I'll keep this approach in mind. I notice that in this version with the semi-colons the "Firstly", "Secondly", and "Finally" are removed. Not trying to nitpick, but after reading this version with semi-colons I wondered if this particular example would work just as well with commas instead. "We required three ingredients: firstly eggs to provide ..., secondly milk for all ..., and finally flour to bind ..." Would it be better to revise the example with full clauses instead of prepositional phrases? –  Dr. Wily's Apprentice Jan 13 '11 at 14:21
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If you keep the qualifying statements 'to provide...' etc., and use commas to separate the list elements, you introduce a lot of commas. Using semi-colons separates the list into [subject] [reason]; [subject] [reason] etc. and thus makes it easier to read. If you lose the qualifiers, then yes, you could simply say 'We required three ingredients: eggs, milk, and flour.' –  user3444 Jan 13 '11 at 14:39
    
Hmm, I agree with you there. I think when I first read it I felt that the commas separating the nouns and prepositional phrases were unnecessary, though I suppose that's a matter of style. In the back of my mind I was also thinking that it might not be valid to use semi-colons or full-stops without a complete [Subject] [Predicate] clause, but after looking around a bit this seems perfectly acceptable. –  Dr. Wily's Apprentice Jan 13 '11 at 16:11
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