Using a Colon before a List (with Examples)

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Using a Colon before a List

A colon is often used to introduce a list. For example:
  • Lee likes the following pies: chicken and mushroom, mince and onion, and cheese and onion.
When your list is written in sentence format (like the list above), the clause before the colon (here, Lee likes the following pies) must be able to stand alone.

However, when a colon is used with a vertical list (e.g., bulleted list, a numbered list), there is more leniency. The clause before the colon can be a short introduction which does not stand alone. For example:

We have a selection of pies. Choose from:
  • Chicken and mushroom.
  • Mince and onion.
  • Cheese and onion.       

Ensure Your Introduction Can Stand Alone

Some strict grammarians maintain that the clause before a colon must always be capable of standing alone, even when the colon introduces a vertical list. However, we judge this ruling to be outdated given how common bullet points have become in the digital era.

When a bulleted or numbered list is being introduced, it is acceptable to use an introduction which does not stand alone. For example:

The lucky winners are:

1. Fred Bloggs
2. Joe Bloggs
3. John Doe

Note: Be aware that some of your readers might consider this as sloppy writing.

Even though a short introduction is widely accepted for a vertical list, when using sentence format (i.e., normal text), you must use a fuller introduction (i.e., one that can stand alone). For example:
  • The luck winners areFred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe.
  • The lucky winners are Fred Bloggs, Joe Bloggs, and John Doe.
Read more about using colons for introductions.
Read more about using colons with bullet points.

Do Not Use a Colon Before an Incomplete Introduction in a Sentence

Do not use a colon after an incomplete introduction with a list written in sentence format. For example:
  • Select from: blue, red, and pink.
  • Select from blue, red, and pink.
With a bulleted list, the introduction can be incomplete. For example:

Select from:
  • blue
  • Red
  • Pink.      
Read about using a colon before bullet points.

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