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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: 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


The Case of the Missing Hyphen, Part 2

We thank all of you who took the time to respond to the question we posed two weeks ago: Should it be e-mail or email? There were eloquent arguments for both sides, but email won decisively. “Time to join the 21st century,” wrote one gentleman, who added, “and I’m 61 years old.”

Many of you chose email for pragmatic reasons, like this respondent: “In all practicality, email will win. On my smartphone, anyone typing the word e-mail has to shift to a second, then a third screen to complete the word.”

What this amounts to, said another reader, is that “texting is creating a whole new language.” We find ourselves rattled by that thought.

If, as one of you wrote, “The only quick punctuation mark I have on my smartphone is the period,” then this helps explain the indifference to hyphens, commas, apostrophes—and capital letters after periods—that we nitpickers are noting with ever-increasing dismay. Why should advances in technology have to come at the expense of the English language?

Other readers took the long view. “When the use of a particular prefix with a particular word is new, the hyphen is a useful link,” wrote one. “Once people become used to the new combination, the hyphen will be dropped.” History bears out this astute observation. Let’s look at some other familiar words that have followed the same pattern.

Goodbye: In 1968, Random House’s American College Dictionary demanded a hyphen, and preferred good-by to good-bye. The 1980 American Heritage dictionary agreed. But by 2006, American Heritage preferred goodbye, although it also listed the hyphenated choices.

Passerby: It started out as passer-by. The Associated Press Stylebook still recommends the hyphen, but that probably won’t last. The American Heritage dictionary already gave passerby top billing eight years ago.

Fundraiser: After years of recommending fund-raiser, the Associated Press’s manual dropped the hyphen seven years or so ago.

Baseball: The one-word form we have today did not prevail until less than 100 years ago. It was base ball in the early nineteenth century and base-ball in the early twentieth century.

Grass-roots (adjective): The American Heritage dictionary, Webster’s New World (fourth edition), and the Associated Press all agree on the hyphen, but grassroots is coming on strong.

So who are we to flout the inevitable? From now on, we’ll grit our teeth and write email.

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Posted on Monday, March 17, 2014, at 8:08 pm


Colons (Continued)

In a blog first published on August 11, 2007, I helped you understand how to use colons with lists. In this blog, I’d like to help you with other uses of the colon.

Rule 4: It’s often useful to use a colon instead of a semicolon between two sentences when the second sentence explains or illustrates the first sentence and no coordinating conjunction is being used to connect the sentences. If only one sentence follows the colon, it is usually unnecessary to capitalize the first word of the new sentence. If two or more sentences follow the colon, capitalize the first word of each sentence following.

Examples:
I enjoy reading: novels by Kurt Vonnegut are among my favorites.

Garlic is used in Italian cooking: It greatly enhances the flavor of pasta dishes. It also enhances the flavor of eggplant.

Rule 5: Use a colon to introduce a long direct quotation. In this situation, many writers leave a blank line above and below the quoted material and single space the long quotation. Quotation marks are not used.

Example:

The author of Touched, Jane Straus, wrote in the first chapter:

Georgia went back to her bed and stared at the intricate patterns of burned moth wings in the translucent glass of the overhead light. Her father was in “hyper mode” again. Nothing could calm him down.

He’d been talking nonstop for a week about remodeling projects, following her around the house as she tried to escape his chatter. He was just about to crash, she knew.

Rule 6: Use the colon to follow the salutation of a business letter even when addressing someone by his or her first name. Never use a semicolon after a salutation. For personal correspondence, use a comma after the salutation.

Example: Dear Ms. Rodriguez:

 

Pop Quiz
1A. Dear Mr. Ang;
1B. Dear Mr. Ang:

2A. The noise from the car collision suggested injuries: One of the drivers was taken to the emergency room with a broken arm. The other walked away from the accident scene with just a few scratches.
2B. The noise from the car collision suggested injuries: one of the drivers was taken to the emergency room with a broken arm. The other walked away from the accident scene with just a few scratches.

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1B. Dear Mr. Ang:
2A. The noise from the car collision suggested injuries: One of the drivers was taken to the emergency room with a broken arm. The other walked away from the accident scene with just a few scratches.

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Posted on Wednesday, May 27, 2009, at 7:56 pm


Colons with Lists

Rule 1: Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words such as namely, for example, or that is do not apply or are not appropriate.

Examples:
You may be required to bring many items: sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.
I want the following items: butter, sugar, and flour.
I want an assistant who can do the following: (1) input data, (2) write reports, and (3) complete tax forms.


Rule 2: A colon usually does not precede a list unless it follows a complete sentence.

Examples:
To be successful in sales, one should do the following: (a) dress appropriately, (b) ask customers about their needs, and (c) follow through.

To be successful in sales, one should (a) dress appropriately, (b) ask customers about their needs, and (c) follow through.

Rule 3: With tabular format, a colon customarily precedes a list.

Examples:
To be successful in sales, one should do the following:
(a) dress appropriately
(b) ask customers about their needs
(c) follow through

To be successful in sales, one should:
(a) dress appropriately
(b) ask customers about their needs
(c) follow through

Note: You may use and before the last phrase.

To be successful in sales, one should:
(a) dress appropriately,
(b) ask customers about their needs,
(c) and follow through.

Note:
Capitalization and punctuation are optional when using single words or phrases in bulleted form. If each bullet or numbered point is a complete sentence, capitalize the first word and end each sentence with proper ending punctuation. The rule of thumb is to be consistent.

To be successful in sales, one should:
• Dress appropriately,
• Ask customers about their needs,
• Follow through.

Note: With lists, you may use periods after numbers and letters instead of parentheses.

For our meeting on Tuesday, please:
a. E-mail the agenda to me by Monday afternoon.
b. Call me 15 minutes before the meeting is set to begin.
c. Distribute the notes to all the board members after the meeting.

Pop Quiz
Add punctuation if needed.
1. The following are required (a) wet suits, (b) fins, (c) snorkels.
2. Please bring (a) wet suits, (b) fins, and (c) snorkels.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The following are required: (a) wet suits, (b) fins, (c) snorkels.
2. Please bring (a) wet suits, (b) fins, and (c) snorkels. (CORRECT)

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Posted on Saturday, August 11, 2007, at 8:09 pm