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I am consistently confused by by the usage of "as follows", in particular, I don't know if I should end "as follows" with a period, or with a colon.

Should I always use a colon, or can I sometimes use a period?

It feels more natural to use a colon, but I have only seen it in lists, but not sentences. For example, should I write:

The description of each chapter is as follows: in chapter 1, we discuss the life story of Bill, and as we will see Bill grew up poor and had no family. In chapter 2, we will talk about how Bill became the richest man in New York. In chapter 3 we will talk about Bill's relationship with Jane. We have finished talking about all the chapters.

or

The description of each chapter is as follows. In chapter 1, we discuss the life story of Bill, and as we will see Bill grew up poor and had no family. In chapter 2, we will talk about how Bill became the richest man in New York. In chapter 3, we will talk about Bill's relationship with Jane. We have finished talking about all the chapters.

  • The problem of using : to me is that the last sentence "we have finished talking..." is not a part of the chapters, but it feels that the colon also includes that sentence as a chapter, which feels wrong to me.

  • In fact, it feels that everything that comes after a colon is included in the list and the only way to signal to the reader you are no longer listing things is by starting a new paragraph, which is weird.

  • Also if you are listing many things, it feels that the : only includes the first thing, because you eventually have to put a period after it. If you were to replace the period with a comma, then you have created a run-on sentence.

What is the correct punctuation after "as follows"?

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    I like your use of the colon. It certainly does not announce only one item, but the whole list. The problem with the last sentence is not fixed by starting a new paragraph. The reader can figure out that the list ended. The problem is, no offense, that the words are not needed.By the way, why do you say we discuss, we will talk, and we will talk? Jun 20, 2017 at 21:10
  • Either 1 or 2.... Jun 20, 2017 at 21:49
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    I have voted to re-open this post. Although unnecessarily wordy, there is a kernel of an interesting question here. May 6 at 18:33
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    The answer depends on the length of the following items. Short items separated by semicolons may be introduced by a colon. Long items that may comprise several sentences cannot be treated in the same way. The question is therefore open to objective discussion rather than opinion and should not have been closed.
    – Anton
    May 7 at 7:12
  • @Anton If the question is reanalysed to conform to your assertion, whether the colon may correctly be used to introduce a list of 'long items that may comprise several sentences' it is a duplicate of What to do about multiple sentences following a colon and probably others. But Sven's answer here trumps all others. There remains the issue concerning whether bullet-point formatting goes beyond ELU's remit. May 8 at 15:28

4 Answers 4

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Semicolons to separate the chapters, as proposed in another answer, is certainly a valid approach. However, I'd like to answer from a different angle - one that comes from my experience with lists in technical writing, where they are very common.

First of all, the right punctuation after "as follows" is a colon. There's no way around that. "Follows" or "following" is the indicator. You could potentially get away with a period at the end of a sentence like "The following diagram illustrates the flow of X through Y." Even in this case, a colon is preferable. But if the lead-in actually ends with "as follows" or "the following", then a colon is the only option.

Regarding your question about whether the colon can introduce more than one sentence: Indeed it can. For example, here in this paragraph, it does. What I'm doing here is not the same as what you did in your example, though. Everything I'm saying is part of the same point. In your example, you actually have introduced a list, and each item in your list consists of a complete sentence, so the best way to present that would be as a bulleted or numbered list.

Incidentally, each of the items in the bulleted list would start with a capital letter, since it's a complete sentence. When you run into the first sentence directly from the lead-in, as I did in the previous paragraph, it's up to you (or the house style you're writing for) to decide whether to capitalise after the colon. I prefer to do so, but that isn't a binding rule.

Regarding your question about the last sentence, which isn't part of the chapters, I'm assuming that you know that the last sentence is unnecessary and that you've just used it as a (perhaps rather silly) example to raise the entirely valid question: "How do I indicate to the reader that this is no longer part of the stuff that followed the colon?" Your intuition is correct. A new paragraph is the way to do that, and there's nothing weird about it.

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  • I generally agree with this analysis and have upvoted accordingly. Still, I'm not entirely sold on the idea that punctuating "as follows" with a colon is always required. The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition, at any rate, seems unwilling to commit entirely to that proposition: "6.62 Colons with "as follows" and other introductory phrases. A colon is normally used after as follows, the following, and similar expressions." Compare that wording with this: "6.60 Space after colon. In typeset matter, no more than one space should follow a colon." Now that's unequivocal.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 21, 2017 at 5:02
  • Good answers on ELU require supporting references (the odd Professor of the English Language we get here alone being able to self -reference). Oct 29, 2019 at 19:00
  • Incredibly pretentious. Immensely accurate. Jun 15 at 16:38
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+200

Here is a quick review of the advice that four influential style guides give for punctuating the lead-in to a display (vertical) list. The most important thing to note at the outset is that most of the style guides I consulted do not view the presence or absence of the particular words "as follows" as being critical to the guidance they offer. Rather, they see the key question as being whether the lead-in constitutes a standalone entity (usually, a complete sentence) or whether it constitutes a fragment that develops into a complete sentence over the course of the list that follows.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010):

6.124 Vertical lists—punctuation and format. A vertical list is best introduced by a complete grammatical sentence, followed by a colon (but see 6.125). ...

[Partial example 1:]

Your application must include the following documents:

a full résumé

three letters of recommendation

all your diplomas, from high school to graduate school

[Partial example 2:]

Compose three sentences:

  1. To illustrate the use of commas in dates

  2. To distinguish the use of semicolons from the use of periods

  3. To illustrate the use of parentheses within dashes

[Partial example 3:]

To change the date display from "31" to "1" on the day following the last day of a thirty-day month, the following steps are recommended:

  1. Pull the stem out to the time-setting position (i.e., past the date-setting position).

  2. Make a mental note of the exact minute (but see step 4).

  3. Turn the stem repeatedly in a clockwise direction through 24 hours.

The exception that CMoS presents in section 6.125 is as follows:

6.125 Vertical lists punctuated as a sentence. In a numbered vertical list that completes a sentence begun in an introductory element and that consists of phrases or sentences with internal punctuation, semicolons may be used between the items, and a period should follow the final item. ...

[Example:]

Reporting for the Development Committee, Johnson reported that

  1. a fundraising campaign director was being sought;

  2. the salary for this director, about $50,000 a year, would be paid out of campaign funds; and

  3. the fundraising campaign would be launched in the spring of 2005.

Interestingly, CMoS doesn't bother to point out that the introductory fragment leading into its numbered list in 6.125 takes no punctuation at all. In effect, the vertical list is simply a broken-out version of a longish sentence, in which the writer treats each parallel clause as a separate entry in the list and adds a sequential number to the beginning of each entry.

As for the examples in 6.124, it seems clear that a writer could—with a bit of editorial rejiggering—rework introductory sentence in each case to end with the words "as follows," without having any effect on the style guide's advice to follow the complete sentence with a colon. For example, in the first instance you might reframe the sentence as follows:

Your application must include several documents, as follows:

With regard to "as follows" in run-in text, CMoS offers this guidance:

6.62 Colons with "as follows" and other introductory phrases. A colon is normally ued after as follows, the following, and similar expressions. [Cross-reference omitted.]

[Example 1:]

The steps are as follows: first. make grooves for the seeds; second, sprinkle the seeds; third, push the earth back over the grooves; fourth, water generously.

[Example 2:]

Kenzie's results yield the following hypotheses: First, ... Second, ... Third, ...

The Oxford Guide to Style (2002) doesn't address the question of how to punctuate the introductory sentence of a vertical list, but in its section 9.1.4 ("Displayed lists"), it presents three examples of displayed lists and in each case introduces an example list with a complete sentence followed by a colon. Here is the first example, with its lead-in:

In the so-called hanging list, turn-lines and any subsequent lines hang from (align on) the start of each line of text:

  1. The cerebellum forms two spheres—one on each side of the central region (vermis)—and is overhung by the occipital lobes of the cerebrum.

  2. The pons (Pons Varolli), linking the medulla oblongata and the thalamus, bulges forwards in front of the cerebellum.

  3. The medulla oblongata (myelencephalon), the extension within the skull of the upper end od of the spinal cord. forms the lowest part of the brainstem.

And here is Oxford's example of an unnumbered (bulleted) list, again with text lead-in:

Here are two examples of unordered lists:

  • Bulka

  • Hundertspiel

  • Špády

  • Trappola

Evidently, Oxford is following the same formatting approach that CMoS recommends.

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009) addresses the question of how to punctuate the lead-in sentence to a list somewhat glancingly, in the course of a discussion of how to use bullets as punctuation marks:

Here are seven more tips on using bullets well: (1) end your introduction with a colon, which serves as an anchor; ...

Garner returns to this use in his section on colons:

Second, the colon can introduce a list of items, often after expressions such as the following and as follows—e.g., "The meetings are as follows: Central, Dec. 11 at the Municipal Auditorium, 5:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m.; South, Dec. 15, at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 5:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m." [Citation omitted.]

For purposes of the poster's specific question about "as follows," Garner offers one of the most relevant discussions that I found. Garner also emphasizes that a colon can follow an introduction to a list even when that introduction is not a complete sentence. Here, for example, is an extreme instance from Garner's discussion of the uses of a colon:

First it [the colon] may link two separate clauses or phrases by indicating a step forward from the first to the second: the step may be from an introduction to a main theme, from a cause to an effect, from a general statement to a specific instance, or from a premise to a conclusion. E.g.:

  • "Boeing left some chips on the table: It agreed to give up the exclusive -supplier agreements it had negotiated with American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Continental Airlines." [Citation omitted.]

  • "Economists point to day care's problem as a classic case of market failure: ... [Citation omitted.]

  • "My assignment: Identify and contact the CIOs for 100 companies that were selected on the basis of their productive and innovative use of information technology." [Citation omitted.]

Clearly, Garner sees no reason to adhere to to CMoS's stricture that "A vertical list is best introduced by a complete grammatical sentence, followed by a colon"; if you can introduce a vertical list with "E.g.:" you can introduce it with anything—and yet Garner is careful throughout his style guide to complete the introductory sentence, phrase, or other term before a display list with a colon.

Finally, Words into Type, third edition (1974) offers a somewhat different take on proper end punctuation of sentences or phrases that introduce display lists:

Lists. A colon is used after an introductory statement that contains the words as follows or the following; either a colon or a period may be used after other statements introducing lists.

[Example:]

We will discuss the following types of psychotherapy:

  1. Client centered therapy

  2. Rational-emotive therapy

  3. Behavioral therapy

When the introduction is not a complete sentence and one or more of the items of the list are needed to complete it, no colon or dash should be used.

[Example:]

Two types of psychotherapy are

  1. Client centered therapy

  2. Rational-emotive therapy

An exception to the foregoing is that a colon may be used to replace a comma when the statement preceding a displayed list ends with such words as for example or that is.

[Example:]

We have thus for covered two types of therapy, that is:

  1. Client centered therapy

  2. Rational-emotive therapy

I don't know why Words into Type thinks that the words "as follows" or "the following" require a colon, whereas the same sentence without those words can be punctuated with either a colon or a period, but that's the position it takes—and this book was very influential in the publishing world in the late 1900s.

In other respects, Word into Type seems much more welcoming to the use of a period rather than a colon at the end of an introduction to a list than (for example) CMoS and Oxford are.


Conclusions

How you punctuate the end of an introductory sentence or phrase preceding a display (vertical) list is ultimately a style question, as all punctuation questions are. The goal of punctuation is to guide readers as subtly as possible to a clear reading of what the author is trying to say. But for that very reason, aiming for the mainstream of punctuation conventions is a good idea: you don't want to leave your readers in an pathless jungle of unpunctuated prose, but you also don't want to distract or baffle them with baroque or idiosyncratic punctuation choices.

In the case of introductions to display lists, the least-disapproved end punctuation mark in the four style guides I consulted is the colon. Indeed, Words into Type insists that it is the only appropriate punctuation mark to use at the end of an introductory phrase that includes the words "as follows." Other style guides are less particular on this point, but not one objects to using a colon at the end of introductory sentence or phrase unless the following list is really just a complete sentence chopped into parallel pieces (in which case, the style guides that address that exception recommend using no end punctuation before the list at all).

Although my answer has focused primarily on display lists, the argument for using a colon before the first entry in a run-in list is essentially the same, and (as CMoS 6.62 suggests) the appearance of "as follows" in the middle of a paragraph usually signals a fairly complex string of parallel entries (whether sequential instructions or a list of examples) that would benefit from being demarcated by a preceding colon.

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    Thorough as ever. Thanks for the work involved. May 8 at 15:14
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You should introduce your list with a colon, and separate items with semicolons.

From the University of Leicester:

The semi-colon

...

To separate items in a list

Use the semi-colon to separate items in a list when one or more items contain a comma. (These examples use a colon to introduce items in the list. An explanation of the use of the colon is given below.)

The speakers were: Dr Sally Meadows, Biology; Dr Fred Eliot, Animal Welfare; Ms Gerri Taylor, Sociology; and Prof. Julie Briggs, Chemistry.

The four venues will be: Middleton Hall, Manchester; Highton House, Liverpool; Marsden Hall, Leeds; and the Ashton Centre, Sheffield.

The main points in favour of the system were that it would save time for buying, accounts and on-site staff; it would be welcome by the reception staff; it would use fewer resources; and it would be compatible with earlier systems.

...

The colon

...

To introduce a list

The colon can be used to introduce the items in a list.

Topics discussed will include: the structure of viruses, virus families and current concerns in virology.

Students joining the department undertake to: attend all lectures and tutorials, meet deadlines for written work and contribute to tutorials and seminars

...

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    You should follow these guidelines if you're at the University of Leicester. Jun 20, 2017 at 21:44
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    Most U.S. style guides that I'm familiar with deprecate the use of colons in instances like the first two in which the University of Leicester's style guidelines demand it—namely, "The speakers were:" and "The four venues will be:" at the beginning of sentences that end with a run-in series of entries punctuated with commas and semicolons. That doesn't mean that the UL's advice is bad for its own students; but it certainly does not reflect the views of all publishing houses and universities in the English-speaking world.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 21, 2017 at 4:40
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Folwer's Modern English Usage regarding the colon: ". . . but the time when it was second member of the hierarchy, full stop, colon, semicolon, comma, is past. Some contemporary writers deliberately--almost ostentatiously--so employ it, but in general usage, it is not now a stop of a certain power available in any situation demanding such a power, but has acquired a special function: that of delivering the goods that have been involved in the preceding words. In this capacity it is a substitute for such verbal harbingers as viz., scil (to wit), that is, to say, i.e. etc."

In the context of the OP's sentence, the colon means "as follows." "As follows" is redundant, So, "The description of each chapter: in chapter 1 . . ." "The menu offers many choices: steak, fish, chicken . . ." The colon holds the list together; semicolons should separate complex units, commas, simple units. That said, I've seen it punctuated the way you suggest, with the backing of some style manuals. But for me, I go no further than Fowler, father. End Man 10/22

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    ... Make it a comma. May 8 at 15:17
  • @Edwin Ashworth The uncertainty and confusion regarding the use of the colon (see above and below) stem from not following Fowler's sensible observation and advice. I will not make it a comma, period.
    – Zan700
    May 9 at 12:43
  • Regarding E. A.'s clever response (it went over my head), see Animal Crackers.
    – Zan700
    May 9 at 18:19

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