Habits such as: colons before lists

Dutch typography regularly seems to use a superfluous colon to introduce a list of items. (Sometimes even a ‘list’ of one!)

I’m not talking about when you’re introducing a bulleted list or a table or something such that starts on a new line; a colon’s sensible then. This is about the Dutch habit of sticking an unnecessary dubbele punt in the middle of a simple sentence. Here are a few real-life examples that should be zapped:

  • It contains spices such as: ginger, cloves and aniseed.
  • His career included spells with: Groningen and PSV before moving to Chelsea.
  • The terrestrial planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars.

Think of the way you’d be saying it out loud. A colon would make sense if you’re pausing, taking a deep breath, and then embarking cathartically on that list. But if it’s just a question of mentioning A, B and C, well, there’s no need for a colon after ‘mentioning’.

Prevalence: high. Commonplace in scientific writing in particular.
Frequency: high. If an author thinks that’s they way to do it, they’re obviously likely to do so pretty much every time.
Native: rarely. Though it sometimes makes sense for clarity in very long and tortuous legalese sentences, for instance.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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