Colon Confessions

Don't worry. This isn't a post about my recent colonoscopy. (And by the way, my colon looks fabulous. Thanks for asking.)

Rather, this is a post is about a dream and a confession.

For years, I've dreamed of being the kind of writer who uses colons.

I like colons: they broadcast far and wide that I know what I'm doing as a writer.

That brings me to my true confession: colons scare me more than colonoscopies.  

For someone whose motto is spreading writing love like butter on bread, getting down and dirty with colon rules inspires fear instead of love because they are so darn confusing.

As a student, I did a fair share of colon worksheets. I've looked up colon rules a million times.  I've taught kids how to use colons (I shudder), but those pesky punctuation marks always make me sweat.  I can never remember the rules. So, sadly, I've always taken the coward's way out by avoiding them like...well...colonoscopies.

However, today is the day I step forward with Colon Confidence! 

I want to share how my miraculous mental shift happened so it can be part of your writing life, too.

Even though you many not choose to use colons, these steps work for any aspect of writing that gives you the willies.  


First, search for golden lines when you read.  Find expert writers who are doing what you want to do in your very own writing.

Last week, I posted all you need to know about golden lines.

Then, I did a Facebook Live about two favorite golden lines that happened to use colons from Anthony Doerr's book, All the Light We Cannot See.  

I love these two colon sentences:

  1. "The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers."

  2. "Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous. The roar rises and falls."

These golden lines imprinted colons on my mind.  Almost without knowing it, I put my brain in the position to notice more and more colons whenever I read. I created an opening for colons to seep into my writer's soul.


Second, notice more colons (or whatever your thing is) in future reading! 

For me, it happened on Saturday morning while my husband and I were enjoying a cup of coffee while reading the Wall Street Journal

I always go straight to Jason Gay's column. I love (and even collect!) his writing.  This week's article was "The Key to Peace on Social Media: That Mute Button." 

It was a fun read, and then I noticed it was rife with delicious and daring colons:

  1. "To be clear: I am pro-cat videos."

  2. "But here's the delicious part: The muted party can't tell if he or she is being muted."

  3. "I do not say this lightly: The mute button is one of the great advances of humankind, right up there with fire and the frozen margarita machine."


Third, start wondering how you can use colons in your own writing.  In other words, get motivated to learn the rules so you can use colons as well as your golden line mentors.

Hours and hours of soul-sucking grammar and punctuation worksheets did not give me courage to use colons.

Today, I'm motivated because I'm writing a piece about having the courage to use colons. Therefore, I better throw down some colon sentences. If I don't do it right, you're not going to think I'm a trustworthy writer (just so you know, I had badass in there before inspiring, but I inappropriately digress). 

With renewed determination, I pulled out two of my favorite resources (and Googled lots more to find consistency):

1. A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker

a writers reference.jpg


2. Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Writing Better by Mignon Fogarty

grammar girls.jpg

To summarize, paraphrase, and leave out lots of nitty gritty details (about lists, dates, and mathematical notation), here is what I learned about using colons in cool sentences with lots of words: 

1.  If you see a colon in a sentence, its job is to scream, "All the words to the right of me summarize or explain whatever is to the left of me!"

YES! RULE FOLLOWED! "I do not say this lightly: The mute button is one of the greatest advances of humankind, right up there with fire and the frozen margarita machine."

YES! RULE FOLLOWED! "Wind: immediate, bright, sweet, briny, luminous.

2. Colons are ONLY used after statements that are complete sentences (except in math, time etc.).  Fogarty says that if you can replace NAMELY with the colon and the sentence still works, you've probably used the colon correctly. (This tip seemed to work for me some of the time, but not always.)

NO! RULE NOT FOLLOWED, but I like it! "To be clear: I am pro-cat videos."

NO! RULE NOT FOLLOWED, but I like it! "The weather in this place: you can feel it between your fingers."

3. Diana Hacker says that the word following the colon may be capital or lowercase if it's part of an independent clause.

So far so good with the examples in #1 and #2 above.

4. Not everyone agrees on the rules. Thank you English language.  


Fourth, don't go down a rule rathole. 

Right away, I noticed that Gay and Doerr broke the rules that I carefully researched and dissected and cross-referenced. 

Gay and Doerr are award-wining writers backed by huge editorial departments (like Wall Street Journal and Simon and Schuster). Someone important and powerful said it was OK to break the rules. That's good enough for me.

These dudes know the rules and the very reason their colon sentences caught my attention was probably because they DID break the rules. The rule breaking added some writing spice that I couldn't resist.  That's the art part.

So where does that leave me? I'm just a girl who wants to use a colon every once in a while. And that leads me to my fifth and final piece of advice.


Do your best to follow the "right" rules for the advanced stuff (like colons!). Show competence and control with the easy stuff (like capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of every sentence).  Then, just be consistent. Hopefully, all your obviously right stuff will get you off the hook for questionable moves with the advanced stuff that make your writing sing and soar.

In the end, I love writers who take risks. 

Tis better to have coloned wrong than to have never coloned at all

Unless of course, you have an English teacher who is a grammar zealot. Then, for goodness sake, do it her way, but take consolation in the fact that she's probably not a great writer - or at least not as great as Anthony Doerr and Jason Gay.

Always writing,


P.S. My brain will explode if you ask me to write about semicolons. It's just too soon.

P.S.S. Mom, if you're reading this and you see that I've made colon mistakes, please call me ASAP!  

P.S.S.S And here’s a Facebook Live about this very post. True colon confessions.