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1. Use a colon when making a list, when what precedes the list is an independent clause.

CORRECT: There are four ingredients necessary for a good party: music, lighting, food, and personality.

There are four ingredients can stand alone, so the colon separates it from the list.

Do not use a colon to separate a preposition from its objects or a verb from its complements, since the clause will not be independent.

INCORRECT: My ancestors came from: Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.
CORRECT: My ancestors came from Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.

The colon incorrectly separates the preposition from its objects, and leaves My ancestors came from, which is not an independent clause.

INCORRECT: The boys ran home and ate: cake, cookies, and soda.
CORRECT: The boys ran home and ate cake, cookies, and soda.

The colon incorrectly separates the verb ate from its complements.

2. Use a colon after a complete statement to introduce related ideas:

CORRECT: The coffee shop is the best on the block: it has great scones, a full menu, and a great atmosphere.

If, when you are writing your essay, you are in doubt about whether or not you may use a colon, it is best to play it safe and separate your statements with a semi-colon or a period.

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