Punctuation: Colon, Enumeration

We started our look at the colon with the widespread conventional uses followed by the transitional use that bolsters an argument with outside support.

The final two uses of the colon will mark the user as educated or not.  That sounds denigrating to say, doesn’t it?  Yet we do secretly judge as lesser those people who improperly use any grammar constructs.

How many times have you seen “Ladie’s” and laughed?  Whether you realized it or not, that laughter was ridicule.

Misplaced apostrophes, mis-capitalized nouns, mis-used colons—we criticize the improper punctuation coding.

No one is perfect.  No one is without error.  Those truths still do not stop our winces when we see errors in communication.  When errors fill a communication document, we doubt the presenter’s credibility.

Colon uses #3 and #4 are easy to remember and follow—once we understand the rules.

What is Enumeration?

Enumeration looks like it has the word number in it, doesn’t it?  It means counting out a list of items.

When creating a list as part of a sentence, we use the colon before we start the list.

Ticky Info A.  Do not start the list with a capital letter.

Ticky Info B. Only use the colon after a noun.  Colons do not follow verbs.

  • Example: Smart cooks keep certain items in their pantries:  flour, sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, and chocolate chips.
  • Incorrect Example: In the refrigerator a smart cook also keeps: eggs, butter, milk and heavy cream.
  • Incorrect Example: In a smart cook’s pantry are: eggs, butter, milk, and heavy cream.

In the incorrect examples, the colon should not follow the verb, whether that verb is action (keeps) or linking (are).

To make the examples correct, simply remove the colon or recast the sentence.

  • Correct: The following items are kept in the refrigerator:  eggs, butter, milk, and heavy cream

This rule holds true whether the list remains with the text or is set off with bullets.  Three examples will show the bulleted list in use.

1st ~

Smart cooks keep certain items in their refrigerators:

  1. eggs
  2. butter
  3. milk
  4. heavy cream.

2nd ~

Smart cooks keep certain items in their refrigerators:

  • eggs
  • butter
  • milk
  • heavy cream.

3rd ~

In their refrigerator smart cooks keep the following:  eggs, butter, milk, and heavy cream.

Note the use of the colon at the end of each sentence.  Note that the choice of a numbered, bulleted, or in-sentence list doesn’t matter.  All are options.


Bulleted items can be words, phrases, or complete sentences.  Consistency is necessary.  Keep to simple words or phrases or sentences, not a mix.

Most word processing software will want to capitalize each item in the list.  Single words or phrases should not be capitalized;  they are part of the sentence and do not stand on their own.  You may place a period with the last word in the list.  Most people may default to a period after each listed item.  Consistency matters.

When your bulleted items are sentences, do capitalized them and place a period at the end of each.

Smart cooks keep the following items on hand:

  • Flour, baking powder, and baking soda are essentials in any recipe.
  • Salt, usually sea salt and in different grinds, is necessary for flavoring every prepared dish.
  • Vanilla extract is another kitchen staple used in virtually every dessert recipe.
  • Cocoa powder and chocolate chips—or replacements based on personal taste—remain stocked in the pantry to whip up fast desserts for unexpected guests.

The trouble with lists comes when people default to a sentence ender of “the following” or “these items”.

  • For my camping trip, I’ve packed these items: sleeping bag, tent, ground cloth. . . .
  • For my camping trip, I’m packing a sleeping bag, tent, ground cloth. . . .

Both of these sentences are correct.  They both contain lists.  Only one sentences needs the colon.  The other does not.

As we write, we know a list is approaching.  Our brains subconsciously listen for the list.  When we don’t end the sentence with a noun or when we incorporate the list into the sentence as the complement, we should not use the colon.

We think something is needed.  For this reason, we fall into the sticky web of thinking we need a colon.

We have to remember that a colon will always follow a noun and never follow a verb.

“But—but—,” you complain.  “Following is not a noun.  It ends in -ing.  That’s a clear indicator of a verb.  And we follow things.  That’s an action.  That’s definitely a verb.”

“Why, yes.  Follow is a verb, and -ing is a verb form.  Yet the following is clearly a noun.  We have the, an article, the special kind of adjective that points to a noun.  Following is what we call a verbal noun, also known as a gerund.  If we say the following items, this time the word is a verbal adjective, or a participal.”

Discussing verbs and verbals is a grammar lesson, and we’re doing punctuation, the mechanics that help words drive communication.  You’ll have to come back much later for a lesson on verbals.

We’re already close to 900 words for this blog, so we’ll cover the 4th and final use of the colon next week.

Then we’ll tackle the semicolon.

And finally we’ll be ready for the innocent-seeming but so-tricky comma.