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Colons are usually used to introduce a list of some kind after an independent clause; however, would it work for a single item? For example, can you write

For 3 years, I ate hamburgers: my friend's favorite food.

If you do not use a colon here, what should be used?

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    It’s fine to use a colon to separate sentences into clauses like that and to lend emphasis to the final part. But stylistically I’d recommend a bit of an inversion: For three years, I ate my friend’s favorite food: hamburgers. – Dan Bron Dec 26 '17 at 13:23
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    @DanBron That sounds a bit cruel. What did your friend eat? – Mick Dec 26 '17 at 14:31
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    @DanBron "My friend's favorite food" is not a clause but rather a noun phrase in apposition. – tchrist Dec 26 '17 at 15:08
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    @tchrist I'm in apposition to having my syntactic analysis corrected, 'clause it makes me look like I don't know what i'm talking about. – Dan Bron Dec 26 '17 at 15:24
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    You should use a comma. – Hot Licks Mar 27 '18 at 1:13
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The Oxford Guide to Style (2002) offers a usefully concise (but somewhat oddly punctuated) discussion of the colon at section 5.5:

5.5 Colon

The colon points forward: from a premise to a conclusion, from a cause to an effect, from an introduction to a main point; from a general statement to an example. It fulfills the same function as words such as namely, that is, as, for example, for instance, because, as follows, and therefore:

[Relevant example:] She had but one hobby: chocolate.

Various U.S. style guides adopt essentially the same view of the colon that Oxford does. All of them approve of the use of a colon to set off phrases such as the one in your example:

For three years, I ate hamburgers: my friend's favorite food.

Or, in Dan Bron's preferred formulation:

For three years, I ate my friend's favorite food: hamburgers.

Alternative punctuation options include an em dash:

For three years, I ate hamburgers—my friend's favorite food.

a comma:

For three years, I ate hamburgers, my friend's favorite food.

and (arguably) parentheses:

For three years, I ate hamburgers (my friend's favorite food).

  • While a comma and en em dash can perform as alternatives there are certainly differences and reasons to not equate them. +1 but a good answer should reflect that. – Unrelated Jul 26 '18 at 0:15
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Yes you can use colons for other uses besides a listing. In your example the colon indicates a more detailed answer or explanation will shortly follow. The colon relates clauses or indicates there is a close connection to what is before and after the colon mark. Before the colon you must have a complete sentence and many people miss that portion. You could just put a period there but the colon shows --a connection similar to a semi colon. With the semi colon two complete sentences must be present instead of one.

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