You could probably use more colons. They’re handy: they can help you write concisely and briskly. In this column I’ll discuss several good colon uses and go over some rules. (I won’t address colons in numerical ratios, in citations to a court record or evidentiary documents, in article titles, or for times.)
The colon is a pointer, according to Bryan A. Garner in The Redbook, § 1.21. “Think of it as an arrow,” he says. It introduces explanations, amplifications, and illustrations.
The defendant has two choices: plead guilty or fight.
Lasker got what the appellate team worked hard to obtain: remand for an evidentiary hearing.
The merger agreement was like a puzzle: working it out was as rewarding as seeing it finished.
Of course, the colon also introduces lists and quotations, according to June Casagrande in The Best Punctuation Book, Period at 63-64. Those are some of the most common colon uses in legal writing.
Summary judgment is inappropriate for three reasons:
In Clendenen v. Kirby, Inc., the court refused to apply equitable tolling to state-agency filing deadlines, stating as follows:
The text before a colon that introduces a block quotation need not do so explicitly (like “stating as follows”) as long as the sense is clear. In fact, the colon itself often makes the sense clear. It says to the reader, “Hey, I’m about to quote something.”
In Clendenen v. Kirby, Inc., the court refused to apply equitable tolling to state-agency filing deadlines:
You need no colon after words like including and such as, and most consider it an error.
- Not this: The defendant hired three lawyers, including: a transactional attorney and an appellate specialist.
- But this: The defendant hired three lawyers, including a transactional attorney and an appellate specialist.
What structure comes before the colon in regular text? The traditional rule is that a colon should follow only an independent clause. Under that rule, these are wrong:
The testator stated:
The statute provides:
The attachments are:
The direct object or complement that would complete the thought is missing, so it’s not an independent clause. That rule is why we often see these constructions with colons:
The testator made the following statement:
The statute provides as follows:
The attachments are the following:
This traditional rule about independent clauses still applies in formal writing, especially if you know your reader is a punctuation traditionalist. But it’s passing away in most informal writing. And the traditional rule doesn’t apply in one context: Garner says you can ignore it in legal drafting when introducing numbered, lettered, or tabulated subparts. Garner, § 1.28.
The Lessee shall not: (1) paint, wallpaper, alter, or redecorate any portion of the Property; (2) change or install locks; or (3) place signs, displays, or other exhibits on the Property.
The Lessee shall not:
(1) paint, wallpaper, alter, or redecorate any portion of the Property;
(2) change or install locks; or
(3) place signs, displays, or other exhibits on the Property.
What about capitalization? If what follows the colon is not an independent clause, do not capitalize the first word. If what follows the colon is an independent clause, capitalize the first word or don’t, according to your preference, a house style guide, or office practice—but be consistent.
Finally, the colon is appropriate after the greeting or salutation in a formal letter. Casagrande at 65 and Garner, § 1.25.
Informal: Dear Sandra,
Formal: Dear Judge Haynes:
Oh. And one space after colons, if you don’t mind.