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sundae

Korean cooks stuff intestines with noodles and barley to make something called sundae, while in the West we tend to shred it and put it among other less appetising parts of animals as ‘offal’.

All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with punctuation, but now that I have your attention, let’s talk about that silently commanding punctuation mark, the colon, and two of its common uses.

First, then there’s the list colon, useful in writing where you’re giving lots of information. There are three characteristics you will need if you want to succeed in this job: determination, resilience and a sense of humour. This is somewhat more emphatic and pleasing to the eye and ear than ‘to succeed in this job, you’ll need determination, resilience and a sense of humour.’ When the items in the list are long or include commas and sub-lists of their own, use a colon, with semi-colons to divide the items. The menu at the restaurant was rather uninspiring: fish and chips, straight from the freezer; a meat pie, the meat being of an unspecified provenance (offal, maybe?); jacket potatoes with a variety of uninspiring fillings; and – the vegetarian option – broccoli and onion quiche.

The second use is similar – actually, grammatically speaking it is not a distinct use* – but has quite a different effect, usually a quite dramatic one. You could call it an ‘introducing colon’, though no-one does. Rather than introduce a list, you introduce one thing. Here’s a simple example that students could use in, say, a scary story:

There was only one thing on his mind: escape.

Here’s another, this time for an article:

I have some advice for you: don’t go shopping on Christmas Eve. Just don’t.

And another:

London is like no other city in the UK: it is larger than the next two biggest cities put together.

And one final example that doubles as the closing sentence of the post.

All the readers were wondering the same thing: when would he post about the other major uses of commas?

Challenge

Write a short descriptive review of an unusual meal you have eaten. Use a ‘listing colon’ when you are describing the ingredients. Use an ‘introducing colon’ when you are giving your final verdict.

(* Both come under what Italian scholar, Luca Serriani called syntactical-descriptive. I didn’t think Syntactical-Descriptive Colons such a great title for the post though.)

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