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Thread: When do you use a colon?

  1. #1

    When do you use a colon?

    I mean the colon in writing you manuscript, is there a specific time to type in a colon? I reading A Clockwork Orange, and noticed some of the grammar was a little iffy, but sometimes I notice colons being used for this:

    Specific paragraph:
    "Dialogue"

    Is this an incorrect way to use it? I don't ever tend to use a colon when I write the paragraphs I generally do, and I know grammar rules have changed a little bit over the years.

  2. #2
    ~Charity~ writingismypassion's Avatar
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    I don't use them in fiction writing. It's not wrong to use them; I just don't prefer them. I'm curious to see what others say.
    Last edited by writingismypassion; 12-14-2012 at 10:43 PM.
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  3. #3
    Hush, hush... Calliea's Avatar
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    From what I know (and that may well be wrong! Correct me if so):

    a) you use it when you want to list things like I did here
    b) you can use it when the pre-colon sentence tells you that the character will speak.


    I smiled and then my Cow said to me: "You look like an idiot."

    Contrary to:

    I smiled.
    "You look like an idiot," said my Cow.
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  4. #4
    ~Charity~ writingismypassion's Avatar
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    The colon has several purposes. Examples such as this:

    Quote Originally Posted by Calliea View Post
    I smiled and then my Cow said to me: "You look like an idiot."
    are correct. Is that what you're seeing JustSarah?
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  5. #5
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Calliea View Post


    I smiled and then my Cow said to me: "You look like an idiot."
    That is not correct. The colon is used to indicate a quote only when the sentence preceding the quote is an independent clause. (The colon does not replace the comma.)

    I smiled and then my cow said to me is not an independent clause.

    To use a colon correctly with that sentence, it could be:

    I smiled and then my cow spoke: "You look like an idiot."

  6. #6
    That hairy-handed gent
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    The Purdue OWL is the best on-line resource for questions of this kind:

    http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

    Bookmark it.

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  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by Calliea View Post
    I smiled and then my Cow said to me: "You look like an idiot."
    "Why?" I said.

    "Because you're talking to a cow!"
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  8. #8
    ~Charity~ writingismypassion's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by guttersquid View Post
    That is not correct. The colon is used to indicate a quote only when the sentence preceding the quote is an independent clause. (The colon does not replace the comma.)
    Oops. I didn't think of that. My bad.
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  9. #9
    Ne Cede Malis orion_mk3's Avatar
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    I personally use a colon whenever I need to digest food

    Seriously, though, I find myself using it rather rarely in fiction writing and almost always for effect in certain dialogue tags as in guttersquid's example.

    I do feel your pain though: I'm not a grammarian, so I use the thing mostly by instinct. I wouldn't know an independent clause if it tried to give me presents in July.
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  10. #10
    Simplify. frankiebrown's Avatar
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    Quoted from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, pages 7-8.

    Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation. A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semi-colon, and more formality than the dash.
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  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW Ken's Avatar
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    ... according to my limited understanding, you use a colon to further explain or describe what preceded it. E.g. I gave Jane a flower: a pretty, red one.

  12. #12
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    "This was what she didn't know: that her husband was cheating on her with her own sister."

    That was just a random example, and that's how I use colons. I don't know if I'm wrong.

  13. #13
    jlw OhTheHorror's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by frankiebrown View Post
    Quoted from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, pages 7-8.



    If you do not own a copy of The Elements of Style, I highly recommend that you go out and buy a copy. Or several.
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    Invisible Monsters, page 17.
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  14. #14
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    Seconding guttersquid and frankiebrown...and also adding that, if it means anything to you, I never used the colon in fiction writing either until recently. I've come to actually quite like it. I feel like it adds a little bit of variety to my sentence pacing.

    If you're asking, you must be interested. So why not experiment with it?

  15. #15
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    If fiction, I don't use colons. Or semicolons, for that matter. To me, both indicate a sentence that could be written far better.

  16. #16
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    Colons and semicolons have specific uses, so sometimes using them is making the sentence "written far better."

  17. #17
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    Quote Originally Posted by guttersquid View Post
    Colons and semicolons have specific uses, so sometimes using them is making the sentence "written far better."
    Not in my experience. Yes, both have uses, but this doesn't mean they work better in fiction. Your mileage may vary, but I have yet to find a sentence in fiction that can't be improved by getting rid of a colon or semicolon.

    The main use of colons and semicolons in fiction seems to be to let the writer get away with not doing the hard work of writing better sentences.

  18. #18
    New writer since 07/2012. Cornelius Gault's Avatar
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    Please, can I say it? "I use my colon every day". Sorry.
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  19. #19
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  20. #20
    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cornelius Gault View Post
    Please, can I say it? "I use my colon every day". Sorry.
    I teach anatomy and physiology classes, and you beat me to the punchline

    Seriously, though. I tend to use colons and semicolons more in non-fiction writing and prefer m-dashes and two sequential short sentences in fiction writing. But I don't think it's technically incorrect to use colons in in fiction. I've certainly seen them in published novels. It's the sort of thing that used to be invisible to me, until I started writing more seriously myself.
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  21. #21
    Resident Alien Reziac's Avatar
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    I don't know if it's technically correct or not, but there are a few published authors who use a colon, either as a full-stop within a sentence, or to replace the comma before dialog. I've seen it occasionally in SF/F, more often in general fiction.
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  22. #22
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    I thought I hardly ever used colons in fiction. But then I did a search on my 143k-word novel, and I found that they turn up 95 times. Here are some samples of how I use them:

    "The buildings were enormous: apartments, stores and
    workplaces of every sort all joined together, with
    cavernous public spaces in the middle."

    "It was just what she had hoped: He knew the language family well enough to recognize a fluent speaker when he heard one."

    "It was a bit disappointing: not especially large, plain and functional, gray and undecorated."

    "If it worked, it would be an escape: an escape not so much through space as through time."

    At least some of those sentences will probably get revised, but I'm not planning to delete colons wholesale.

  23. #23
    I agree with Roxxsmom.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Jamesaritchie View Post
    I have yet to find a sentence in fiction that can't be improved by getting rid of a colon or semicolon.

    The main use of colons and semicolons in fiction seems to be to let the writer get away with not doing the hard work of writing better sentences.
    I find it impossible to believe that the giants of fiction use colons and semicolons because they aren't willing to do the hard work of writing better sentences. I'm pretty sure they work hard at the craft.

  24. #24
    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Well, may be a taste thing. I prefer not to use them myself. In my mind, I associate them with a more formal style than I'm trying to write in my fiction. But I'm not going to put down a book I'm enjoying because the author uses them sometimes. I like different kinds of styles and voices.

    I notice things like that more than I used to, but that's because as a writer, I notice all kinds of things other writers do that are different from what I usually do. I either file them away as tools I might possibly employ to good effect in my own writing or as something that wouldn't work for me but works for their voice/style.
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  25. #25
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    Quote Originally Posted by guttersquid View Post
    I find it impossible to believe that the giants of fiction use colons and semicolons because they aren't willing to do the hard work of writing better sentences. I'm pretty sure they work hard at the craft.
    I'm no giant of fiction, but I have to agree with this sentiment. When I use the colon in my writing it's most definitely not out of laziness. As with anything, you have to make sure you're using it properly and well.

    An example I really liked from a writing class in university was this sentence---> "Her method was simple: poison."

    What could be better than that?

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