Using the Colon in Citations, References and Quotations
Among the uses of the colon (:) in punctuating scholarly prose are its applications when citing sources, quoting the words of others and providing complete bibliographical references. Usage patterns are often based on the documentation methods and editorial formats indicated in publisher guidelines and style manuals, so it is always essential to consult the guidance specified for your document and follow the relevant instructions with precision and consistency. However, there are also general patterns and certain trends to watch for as you prepare your document for publication, and these notes may prove helpful when placing colons.

Some form of punctuation is often required when including direct quotations in academic or scientific prose, and in many cases a colon is the right choice. The quotation can be introduced in an independent clause, the colon added immediately after the clause and the quotation added after the colon, as is the case in this sentence: ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit begins with a line that the author apparently scribbled on a student paper he was grading: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”’ (unfortunately, the italic font on that title will probably not show up in this post, but try to imagine it there). A colon used in this way is appropriate for formal English and it also tends to clarify sentence structure and the line between the author’s text and the quoted passages, with a decidedly positive effect on the legibility and accessibility of complex material for readers. A colon is an especially appropriate choice when more than one sentence or passage is quoted or when emphasis is required, so it is an excellent tool when introducing long displayed quotations as well as short embedded ones, and it can also be effective when transcribing direct speech (INTERVIEWER: ‘Did you find the test painful?’ PARTICIPANT 2: ‘I thought the test was fun. Was it supposed to hurt?’)

The colon comes in very handy for other purposes as well when a scholar is citing and quoting sources in the main text of an academic or scientific document. If words are directly quoted, for instance, the in-text citation usually requires a reference to the page on which the quotation can be found. In some styles – though not all, so do check your guidelines – a colon is used to introduce the page number, as in (Pearson, 2013:p.31) or, for more than one page, (Pearson, 2013:pp.31–35). When a full title is cited in the running text (as indeed in notes or complete bibliographical entries), colons are often placed between the main part of the title and the subtitle, even if there is no punctuation between those two elements in the text itself (as on a book cover, for example). ‘Fragments, Fusions and Splices: Perfecting Sentence Structure,’ a title of another of my articles, shows a standard pattern. Finally, when citing a well-known book such as the Bible, quick references to chapter and verse can be provided by simply separating the two elements with a colon (Genesis 2:16), and this principle can be applied to the parts of any text a scholar cites frequently (the book and lines of a poem, for instance) as long as the principle behind these shortened references is explained when they are first used.

Full bibliographical references use colons not only in the titles of books,
journals, articles, chapters and so on, but in a number of other elements as well. A colon often appears, for example, between the place of publication and the publisher, before a publication date or after ‘in’ or ‘In’ when referring to a chapter in a book. A colon is also a standard piece of punctuation for introducing issue or page numbers when recording journal articles in a list of references, with ‘BMC Public Health 24(67): 62–88’ providing an accurate example of one style (again, imagine italic font on that title). Finally, the URLs now common in scholarly references feature colons as well.

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