Punctuation and the Technical Writer, Part 1: Your Colon Questions Answered!

This blog post appears by popular request! If my exclamation point didn’t alert you already, I am extremely excited to have been asked to blog about punctuation! Remember, I’ll blog about anything writing-related on which you’d like or need clarification. Anything.

Not to get too meta, but note how punctuation in that previous paragraph conveys both tone and meaning. My exclamation points express enthusiasm. In this series, I’ll tell you about the proper uses of punctuation marks that are useful and appropriate for technical writing–in large part because they convey organization. If you’re confused about how and when to use the colon, the semi-colon, the dash, and the hyphen, you’re not alone. Read on.

Foremost (to my mind) among organizing punctuation marks is the colon. That’s the one I’ll write about in this post. Broadly, there are two ways to use the colon: as an indication that what’s about to come up is important, and before a list. Let’s start with the indicating colon. Harry Shaw, author of Punctuate It Right!calls this the “watch for what’s coming” type of colon. Here are some examples of that first use of the colon, in its “watch for what’s coming” role:

Ex. The XBox lacked an important feature: the ability to control its users’ minds.
Ex. He had a goal: to run a half-marathon.
Ex. I already told you the answer: No.
Ex. They felt sorry for the chess champion: he was bested by a newcomer 20 years his junior.
Ex. She had a natural sense of drama because of her birthplace: Broadway.
Ex. He found my weakness: reruns of The Americans.
Ex. The committee offered a statement: “We will not go gentle into the good night.”

These sentences function like,

Here it comes [COLON] the point of this sentence.

Colons are great for reader-centric writing because they force you, as the writer, to write a sentence that HAS an obvious point (which, as we know, many sentences lack). They also let your reader know what is important. A commas has more uses, and for that reason it’s much more common, but a colon does something a comma can’t do: it orders the parts of the sentence in terms of importance. The first part sets up the more important second part.

The list function of the colon is simpler to get the hang of. Here are some examples of uses of the second use of the colon, in its list role:

Ex. She used the XBox for three things: watching TV, watching movies, and listening to the radio.
Ex. By his tenth birthday, he had lived in four cities: Berkeley, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Denver.
Ex. I prepared and practiced a few answers, depending on what the committee proposed: “Sorry, but I’m not able to do it,” “Sure, I’d love to,” and “Please never contact me again.”
Ex. He recited prime numbers until he fell asleep: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19…

Don’t worry about whether to capitalize the first letter on the other side of the colon. Companies and people have different rules for when to do so, but that’s a style-guide issue, not a grammatical one. You don’t want to be such a perfect writer that the proofreaders at your company have nothing to do. Just be perfect enough that everyone’s dazzled an engineer can write so well.

Stay tuned for Part 2: the semi-colon.



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