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Colons and Capitals

Why can’t all punctuation be as easy to understand as periods are? Periods end a sentence. The first word in the next sentence is capitalized. That’s about it.

But when it comes to capitalization, the colon—one period floating ominously above the other—makes fledgling writers jumpy about the word that follows it.

There are conflicting policies and theories about capitalizing after colons. But here are two rules that everyone seems to agree on:

• Capitalize the first word of a quotation that follows a colon. (She replied: “The weather was too pleasant to leave.”)

• Capitalize if the information after a colon requires two or more complete sentences. (Dad had two rules: Work hard. Be honest.)

Some of you may be asking: Shouldn’t a writer always capitalize the first word after a colon? Here is the answer: certainly not. The first word in a list that follows a colon should not be capitalized (Please bring the following: goggles, gloves, and a wrench). Neither should a word, phrase, or incomplete sentence (Here’s where I’ll be: way up north). Obvious exceptions are proper nouns and acronyms that are always capitalized (Here’s where I’ll be: North Dakota).

Now comes the most vexing question: Should you capitalize the first word in a complete sentence that follows a colon? The influential Associated Press Stylebook says yes, always. But the no less influential Chicago Manual of Style says no—except for the two bulleted rules listed above in the fourth and fifth paragraphs.

Both policies strike us as unnecessarily rigid. Why not let the writer decide, based on the meaning and intended tone of the sentence?

In AP style, a writer has no choice but to write One thing I ask: Be careful crossing the street. In Chicago style, a writer has no choice but to write One thing I ask: be careful crossing the street. Some writers might prefer lowercase in this situation, feeling that capitalizing be borders on shrill. Other writers might choose a capitalized Be to emphasize the importance of the warning. After all, the danger of distracted urban meandering in this age of hand-held gadgets should not be downplayed.

We understand that neither AP nor Chicago wants to be perceived as wishy-washy. The inflexibility of their colon policies is a boon to beginners looking for guidance. But what about writers with some experience? Consistency is good—but in this case, as illustrated in the previous paragraph, consistency thwarts nuance.

When novices become seasoned writers, and understand all the rules of punctuation, we believe they have earned the right to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to capitalize after a colon.


Pop Quiz

Would you change the punctuation in any of these sentences? Correct answers are below.

1. Here are our only rules: drive slowly. And do not leave your lane.

2. In the bag were the following: Scissors, a hairbrush, and a warm soda.

3. This is what Freddie said: “she can’t.”


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Here are our only rules: Drive slowly. And do not leave your lane.

2. In the bag were the following: scissors, a hairbrush, and a warm soda.

3. This is what Freddie said: “She can’t.”

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Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2015, at 1:20 pm

Capitalizing Composition Titles, Part II

Some may question the need for a two-part series on this esoteric topic. But even those who consider themselves top-notch at identifying parts of speech in a word grouping will find composition-title capitalization a skill worth mastering.

Any title of more than two words can be a challenge. How would you capitalize a title such as not yet rich? Since the first and last word in any title are always capitalized, the only question is whether to cap yet. In this case, yet is an adverb, and adverbs are always capped. So make it Not Yet Rich.

Now suppose the title is rich yet miserable. This time yet is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (the others are and, or, nor, but, for, and so). Since coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized in titles, the right answer is Rich yet Miserable.

Here are two correctly capitalized titles: Going up the Road and Going Up in a Balloon. In the first title, up is a preposition, and short prepositions are not capitalized. In the second title, Up is an adverb and should be capped.

Along the same lines, compare the following three titles: I Got It off the InternetPlease Put It Off for Today, and I Hit the Off Switch. In the first example, the preposition off is lowercase. But the word must be capped in the second example because put off, meaning “to postpone,” is a two-word phrasal verb (a verb of two or more words). One-word verbs, auxiliary verbs, and phrasal verbs are always capitalized. Off is also capped in the third sentence because the word functions as an adjective in that title, and adjectives are always capitalized.

Although the seven coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized, you may have noticed there are many more than seven conjunctions in English. Most of these are called subordinating conjunctions, because they join a subordinate clause to a main clause. Familiar examples include asalthough, beforesince, until, when.

There are three approaches to capping subordinating conjunctions: capitalize them all, lowercase them all, or capitalize them if they are words of four letters or more. Take your pick.

Try applying your own composition-capitalization policy to any sentence you see or hear. This is a great mental exercise, which will help keep you well grounded in the fundamentals of our language.


Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Extra credit: indicate which words could go either way. Answers are below.

1. oh, how i hate to get up in the morning
2. we will be there although it is madness
3. always look up as you go down the road
4. i thought it had no on button
5. pick me up on your way over here
6. my work: the search for a life that matters
7. have you heard of that of which I speak?


Pop Quiz Answers

1. Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (OR how)
2. We Will Be There Although It Is Madness (OR although)
3. Always Look Up As You Go down the Road (as and down could go either way)
4. I Thought It Had No On Button
5. Pick Me Up on Your Way over Here (OR Over)
6. My Work: The Search for a Life That Matters
7. Have You Heard Of That of Which I Speak?

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Posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, at 9:53 am

Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.


Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves


Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

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Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at 7:55 pm

Rules, Policies, and Judgment Calls

Readers seemed to enjoy “Are Two r’s One Too Many?” our column about the pronunciation of February. But we also received a few emails like this one: “Why on earth is there an apostrophe in the title??”

We understand the reader’s concern. Starting in grade school, English teachers rail against sentences like “Banana’s make good snack’s.” Students learn early on that only careless or clueless writers use apostrophes to pluralize nouns.

However, there are certain exceptions. When a rule leads to perplexity rather than clarity, writers and editors will make adjustments. For instance, the use of apostrophes strikes us as the simplest and most practical way to pluralize is and was in a sentence like Jones uses too many is’s and was’s. You may feel you have a better solution, but the is’s and was’s solution is not wrong. It is endorsed by many reputable language authorities.

These days, initialisms like TV or RSVP are made plural simply by adding a lowercase s without an apostrophe: TVsRSVPs. But to pluralize abbreviations that end in S, we advise using an apostrophe: They sent out two SOS’s.

Imagine the confusion if you wrote My a’s look like u’s without apostrophes. Readers would see as and us, and feel lost.

This brings us back to our title and the phrase “two r’s.” The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) endorses “Mind your p’s and q’s.” The Practical English Handbook by Floyd C. Watkins, William B. Dillingham, et al., sanctions “four c’s,” but the book also accepts “four cs,” presumably because the difference between c in italics and s in roman typeface is sufficient for attentive readers.

There is no definitive rule for using apostrophes (or not) to form plurals in special cases like these. For many decades The New York Times wrote the 1920’s. Then the paper changed its policy in late 2012, and now writes the 1920s like most of the rest of us. And though CMOS recommends “p’s and q’s,” it prefers yeses and nos to yes’s and no’s. One wonders if CMOS would prefer ises and wases to is’s and was’s—because to us, ises and wases is too obscure to be a practical solution.

So to avoid similar confusion, we went with “Two r’s” and not “Two rs” in our title. We didn’t feel comfortable signing off on something that looked like a typo.

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Posted on Monday, February 9, 2015, at 4:23 pm

Nice Publication—Until You Read It

A table by the front door of a hip Northern California restaurant is stacked with complimentary copies of a forty-three-page mini-magazine. This handsome brochure, produced by the company that manages the establishment, is printed on thick, textured paper. It’s full of sumptuous full-color photos depicting the glories of food and drink. Somebody spent a lot of time and money on this. But despite a generous budget and a staff of editors, the written content seems to be an afterthought.

The table of contents lists the wrong page for two of the magazine’s seven articles.

In an introduction, the editor-in-chief writes, “We are enamored by every inch of San Francisco,” even though enamored traditionally takes the preposition of or with. He goes on to call San Francisco “one of the most unique cities in the world.” A good copyeditor would remove “most.” All proficient editors know that unique—meaning “one of a kind”—should stand alone.

In a piece about a farmers’ market, we find “locally-sourced seafood” and “recently-opened bar.” An article about a Napa Valley honey farm refers to “strategically-placed bee hives.” Anyone who ever took Proofreading 101 knows that adverbs ending in ly should not be hyphenated. (And beehive has been one word for eight centuries.)

Proofreading 101 also drills students on avoiding danglers, yet this booklet is teeming with them. In an article about a seafood merchant named Joe, we read this: “Based in San Francisco, Joe’s fish can be found on dozens of menus.” (Joe is based there, not the fish.) A few pages later we find, “Open for breakfast and lunch, you can get the best eggs in the city …” (This inept sentence says that “you” are open for breakfast and lunch.)

Other gaffes range from clumsy to clueless. America’s “west coast” is mentioned but not capitalized. A fish’s texture is called “velvety-like,” even though velvety by itself means “like velvet.” Whoever wrote “a couple bites of leftovers” and “a couple calls came in” thinks couple is an adjective. In fact, it’s a noun, requiring of (“couple of bites,” “couple of calls”).

If a company wishes to make a good impression, you’d think fluent grammatical English would be a crucial part of the presentation.

This restaurant’s management group wouldn’t endorse serving baked orange roughy on paper plates with plastic utensils, or Russian osetra caviar on Wonder Bread slathered in Miracle Whip.

So why produce a sleek publication filled with gorgeous images, only to bring the whole thing crashing down with sloppy articles written by feckless amateurs? Maybe this inattention to detail says something dark about the company. Or maybe it’s just further evidence that clear and precise writing is becoming as outmoded and quaint as pay phones and post offices.


Pop Quiz
Fix any sentences that need correcting. Our answers are below.

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally-famous movie star.
2. Born and raised in Queens, Mr. Walken’s first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is absolutely unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. The show’s lead role is played by a nationally famous movie star.
2. Mr. Walken was born and raised in Queens. His first education for the stage involved dance lessons.
3. The food of New Orleans is unique—and sinfully delicious.
4. We were lost until a kindly-looking man helped us find our hotel. CORRECT (“kindly” is an adjective here, not an adverb)

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Posted on Monday, January 26, 2015, at 5:22 pm