Occasionally, you might want to use a colon (:) to set up a list. In order to do this, you need to create a complete sentence, usually one that ends with a subject complement or a direct object.

Don’t do this:

The four major reasons for the landslide victory were: the candidate’s personal popularity, the enthusiastic support of his party, his stand on budget issues, and the general mood of the nation.

What’s wrong with it? The problem is that the colon follows a verb—in this sentence, the verb were. You might see this type of sentence in a newspaper or a popular magazine, but it’s not accepted in academic writing by most college teachers.

In academic writing, it is normally expected that a subject complement or a direct object should appear before the colon. Label the complement in this example:

The four major reasons for the landslide victory were obvious: the candidate’s personal popularity, the enthusiastic support of his party, his stand on budget issues, and the general mood of the nation.

If you identified the word obvious as the subject complement, you’re correct. The addition of obvious in the second sentence corrects the problem that exists in the first sentence. A colon should not follow a verb.

An important note

Sometimes you’ll use a word that isn’t a complement or a direct object but that still gives the sentence a sense of completion before the items in the list begin. For example, let’s look at this correct sentence:

The strange coincidences happened during each of these years: 1921, 1937, 1952, 1964, and 1986.

You know that the word years is not the complement of the verb happened. If something happened, it happened. We don’t ask a question such as “It happened what?” So strictly speaking, happened is a verb that doesn’t take a complement.

The word years is not a complement or a direct object, but it does help to give the first part of the sentence a sense of completion—a sense that now we’ve finished the setup, and we’re ready to present the items in the list.

To keep things simple, we’ll refer to this kind of word as the complement of the setup. In the majority of sentences—your own and ours—you’ll be working with a true complement anyway, so this won’t often be an issue.

The important thing is this: You need a feeling of completeness in the setup, the part of the sentence that precedes the colon. That sense of wholeness in the setup can be produced by using a true complement or a complement-type word.

Exercise 3.12

Punctuate the following sentences with colons and commas. Some sentences might call for commas only. Label the subject complement sub com and the direct object do to help you see if a sentence has the setup needed for a colon. (Punctuation not related to this unit has already been supplied.)

1. In The Misunderstood Child, Dr. Larry B. Silver says that the human brain goes through major growth spurts during five time periods. Those periods are the following between three and ten months between two and four years between six and eight years between 10 and 12 years and between 14 and 16 years.

2. Santa’s eight tiny reindeer are Dasher Dancer Prancer Vixen Comet Cupid Donner and Blitzen.

3. These are the seven wonders of the ancient world the Great Pyramid of Cheops the Hanging Gardens of Babylon the Tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus the Temple of Artemis the Colossus of Rhodes the Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the lighthouse on the Isle of Pharos.

4 Most of us would probably call a flock of birds a flock of birds. But those who want to be more precise might use one of these terms a bevy of quail a muster of peacocks a charm of finches or an exaltation of larks.

5. Charles Blondín, the French acrobat and tightrope walker, crossed Niagara Falls in 1855 1859 and 1860.