3 Cases of Erroneous Use of Colons

By Mark Nichol

In each of the following sentences, a colon is employed in the mistaken belief that the sentence structure requires it, when in fact the syntax renders it superfluous. Discussion after each example explains why a colon is inappropriate, and a revision demonstrates proper punctuation of the sentence.

1. The network is terminating all its business ties to his media company, which includes: ending its distribution of his new program, renaming the original show, and separating itself from his merchandise website.

A colon should precede a list only when what precedes the colon is a complete sentence. This error is easily rectified by inserting the object “the following” before it, but a better solution is to simply omit the colon: “The network is terminating all its business ties to his media company, which includes ending its distribution of his new program, renaming the original show, and separating itself from his merchandise website.”

2. The piece was widely criticized for, among other things: failing to provide crucial context, an apparent unfamiliarity with terminology, failing to verify several claims, and failing to note that the paper had previously published a similar profile of the organization’s cofounder.

As in the previous example, the writer assumed that a list must be preceded by a colon, but the punctuation is intrusive when it interrupts the syntactical flow of the sentence. In this case, a comma, not a colon, should follow the parenthetical phrase “among other things” to complement the comma preceding the phrase: “The piece was widely criticized for, among other things, failing to provide crucial context, an apparent unfamiliarity with terminology, failing to verify several claims, and failing to note that the paper had previously published a similar profile of the organization’s cofounder.”

3. They understand that, to paraphrase something British statesman Winston Churchill once said: Success is not final, failure is not fatal, and it is the courage to continue that counts.

Here, the assumption is that the proper punctuation for separating an attribution from the quotation (or, in this case, paraphrase) attributed is a colon, but again, what precedes the colon must be a complete sentence, such as “Here is a paraphrase of what British statesman Winston Churchill once said” (clumsy, but syntactically sound). In addition, because the paraphrase is integrated syntactically into the sentence, capitalization of the first word is erroneous: “They understand that, to paraphrase something British statesman Winston Churchill once said, success is not final, failure is not fatal, and it is the courage to continue that counts.” (Without the attribution, the sentence would be styled “They understand that success is not final, failure is not fatal, and it is the courage to continue that counts.”)


Leave a comment: