Writing tip: Back to basics with colons

Theresa Bell
Writing tip: Back to basics with colons

As a quick reminder, sentences are comprised of independent and dependent clauses. Independent clauses contain a subject and a verb, and as their name suggests, they can stand alone without additional information e.g., the sun is shining. Dependent clauses also contain a subject and a verb, but they are incomplete sentences that need an independent clause to make sense e.g., which is a pleasant surprise. Together, independent and dependent clauses create full sentences e.g., The sun is shining, which is a pleasant surprise.

Colons are used in sentences:

  • To join two independent clauses and to emphasize the second clause e.g., Flooding caused road closures on January 28, 2016: Highway 1A and Cowichan Bay Road were both affected by washouts (Harnett, 2016).
  • After an independent clause when it is followed by a list, a quotation, appositive, or other idea directly related to the independent clause e.g., To complete my assignment, I need to finish three more tasks: check my APA formatting, review my grammar, and read the entire document one more time.

If the independent clause is a signal phrase that introduces a block quotation, provide a colon at the end of the clause, as shown below.

Royal Roads University offers visitors a unique experience:

The Royal Roads University campus sprawls over 260 hectares of lush parkland, where you will find walking, hiking, and biking trails, magnificent examples of the west coast’s flora and fauna, gorgeous views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the majestic Olympic mountain range in the background, a stunning Japanese garden, and a castle built for one of Vancouver Island’s most recognized coal barons. (Royal Roads University, n.d.-a, para. 1)

If, however, the signal phrase is a dependent clause that needs the quotation to complete the sentence, use a comma at the end of the phrase, as shown below.

The development of Hatley Park began when,

James Dunsmuir purchased 800 acres of land on the west coast of Vancouver Island . . . .The famous architect Samuel Maclure was hired to design and build a castle that would become the dream estate for James and wife Laura to enjoy in their retirement. (Royal Roads University, n.d.-b, para. 2)

For more information on how to punctuate signal phrases that introduce block quotations, please see Block Quotations.

Do you have questions about punctuation or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator


Harnett, C. (2016, January 28). Crofton-area road closed by washout; Trans-Canada traffic flowing. Times Colonist. Retrieved from http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/crofton-area-road-closed-by-washout-trans-canada-traffic-flowing-1.2160792

Royal Roads University. (n.d.-a). About the campus. Retrieved from http://www.royalroads.ca/about/about-campus

Royal Roads University. (n.d.-b). History. Retrieved from http://www.royalroads.ca/about/history