July 6, 2011: It's the end of the month, my article is due, and I'm traveling with seniors. Lots of talk about digestion and ... colons! Perfect.
Before working up to the colon, let's consider the basic uses of some of the other familiar types of punctuation: commas, semicolons, dashes, and ellipses, each of which is used to express a pause of varying degree.
The comma, the most frequently used, separates a clause from a sentence and prevents a run-on sentence: "When I go to the park, I will watch the children play soccer." The dependent clause, "When I go to the park," precedes the independent clause, "I will watch the children play soccer." If the order is reversed, no comma is necessary: "I will watch the children play soccer when I go to the park." Commas are also used to separate independent clauses joined by a conjunction: "I will watch the children play soccer, and I will go to the beach." In lists, commas separate the enumerated items: "The children play soccer, Frisbee, and baseball." Note that the comma before "and" is known as a "serial comma" and is optional, depending upon the writer's preferred style.
The wonderful semicolon can link together thoughts that are connected but would be broken if written in two separate sentences: "She wanted to go to the park to watch the children play soccer; instead, she went to the beach." It can also be used in lists that have internal divisions marked by commas to show equal categories: "She walked to the park; sipped a soda, ate some pretzels, and enjoyed ice cream; and then watched the movie."
The dash: For a longer pause and more drama, use a dash: "I will watch the children play soccer---but only if you bring along a radio." Remember that a dash (called an "em dash" because it was the width of an "M") is different from a hyphen, which is shorter than an em dash and merely connects words, and an en dash, which is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash and is often used to show a number range ("The final score was 22--0.").
The ellipsis: Next, on to the ellipsis, a wonderful invention to mark a trailing-off thought, very useful if the conversation turns to colons ...
The colon: Which brings me to my travels. The colon, that wonderful pause of pauses, indicates the main point or the example is yet to follow: "The park was beautiful, but the soccer-playing children wondered about the stranger: Was she there to observe or referee?"
A colon can also indicate that there are multiple examples to follow: "The children wondered about the stranger: Was she there to observe? Or was she there to referee? Maybe she was a parent?"
So venture forth, embrace creative punctuation, and don't spare the colon.
Photo by N. Bower