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?

  • 5
    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
  • 1
    @DanBron That sounds a bit cruel. What did your friend eat? – Mick Dec 26 '17 at 14:31
  • 1
    @DanBron "My friend's favorite food" is not a clause but rather a noun phrase in apposition. – tchrist Dec 26 '17 at 15:08
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    You should use a comma. – Hot Licks Mar 27 '18 at 1:13

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).

| improve this answer | |
  • 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

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.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.