3 Simple Rules for Using Colons with Lists

LI & QzzrColons are a totally misunderstood punctuation mark. Many of us have totally forgotten what we learned about them — if we ever did. We usually do what we see others do, figuring it must be right. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t.

We know they help introduce lists, but there are rules for whether the list is within a sentence or dropped down below into a series of bulleted items.

In American grammar, there are three major rules you need to know for basic business writing, and I’m willing to bet you’ll be surprised when you read the rules, especially #1.

#1: Lists Within a Sentence

You must have a complete sentence in front of a colon used to introduce a list within a sentence. Do not put a colon after any word, such as most verbs or  prepositions, that cannot logically end a sentence.

YES: There will be some new people at the meeting: Paul, Sarah, and Jean.
YES: I still need many items for my party: appetizers, desserts, silverware, and dishes.
YES: John has visited a lot countries recently: Peru, Argentina, Brazil, and Ecuador!

The colon may be used in the above examples because the underlined words are complete sentences that could be punctuated with an end mark.

YES: The new people who will be at the meeting are Peter, Sandra, and Juan.
This one is simply a complete sentence without the colon.

NO: The people who will be at the meeting are: Peter, Sandra, and Juan.
NO: The silverware set consists of: knives, forks, and spoons.

The two above cannot contain a colon because we would never end a sentence with “are” or “of.” To properly write those two, simply remove the colon.

#2: Bulleted Lists

When introducing a bulleted list, you may use a complete sentence or a phrase that ends with a preposition or a verb in front of the colon.

Full-sentence style
The accountant needs some information from us:

1. Last year’s sales figures
2. Last year’s profit figures
3. This year’s projections

Incomplete-sentence style
The accountant wants us to provide:
1. Last year’s sales figures.
2. Last year’s profit figures.
3. This year’s sales projections.

Bulleted lists are considered a little less formal, so there is no right or wrong way to introduce them.

#3: Punctuating Bulleted Lists

If the each line item in the list logically ends what comes before the colon, or if each line item is a complete sentence, place an end mark after each (not commas or semicolons); otherwise, use nothing.

Each item in the list below is a complete sentence, so it must have an appropriate end mark of punctuation.

Before we can sign off on the budget, there are some questions to be answered:
1. Does Lisa have the final monthly expense figures?
2. Has Deborah faxed the draft to the Governor for initial approval?
3. Has the printer given us the deadline for printing 2,000 copies?

The items in the list below are not complete sentences, but each could finish the incomplete sentence that is in front of the colon.
The accountant wants us to provide:
1. Last year’s sales figures.
2. Last year’s profit figures.
3. This year’s sales projections.

However, if the items in the list are very short, sort of like a shopping list, use no punctuation.
The people who will be at the meeting are:
Peter Jones
Sandra Brown
Juan Alvarez
Ellen Smith

And yes, believe it or not, we are supposed to capitalize the first word in each of the bulleted items.

Help me help you! Did anything above make sense? No, I don’t mean, “did you like it?” I’m sure many readers will be unhappy with Rule #1, but it is the standard for American grammar.


If your boss absolutely, positively hates Rule #1 and must have the colon inside a sentence — OK. I don’t want anyone losing a job or getting a boss upset over a rule that will neither embarrass nor confuse anyone. Once in a while, grammar butts heads with common sense or real life, and grammar usually loses.