Monday, September 21, 2009

On the Colon

I hesitate to lead you, gentle reader, down into the valley of the shadow of English grammar and punctuation, but lately I've noticed something that has irritated me so much that I have to write about it. When did people decide to start capitalizing the first letter after a colon?

I first noticed this development when I was reading this blog that is like a serialization of a novel this guy's working on. I don't feel right linking just to nitpick someone's grammar (unless it's in the NYTimes), but here is one of many examples, "...Bertie's outfit, which he produces from his neverending bottomless carpetbag seemingly wrinkle-free: A peach silk shirt, grey three-piece with jodhpurs, and a matching twill baseball cap." I thought that this was annoying and wrong, but I figured maybe it was just a personal quirk on the part of the author.

After that, however, I noticed other articles written by other authors who did the same thing. "The brusque nurse, the surfeit of drugs, the ordinary mishaps—this pen's out of ink!—that seemed to bode ill: All served to underscore Betty's terror and her feelings of powerlessness and abandonment." I'm not sure whether this is a new development, or whether this is just one of those thing like when you learn a new word that previously eluded your attention and then you hear/see it used in a bunch of different places over the course of the week (I want to call that synchronicity).

So I decided to look into this capitalization after the colon thing and see whether it was legitimate or not. Before I tell you what I found out, let me just say that I think any discussion of rules of grammar and punctuation treads a slippery slope. I feel like we've all had experiences with grade school teachers who insisted that some usage or another was obligatory or incorrect, and that this was a "rule" one must follow, only to find out later that that was bullshit and that things were not that simple.

On one extreme, there are pedants who insist people should conform to rules that have long ago fallen out of fashion or which were specious to begin with (Don't get me started on the lie that there is a distinction between "further" and "farther!" That might actually have to be the topic of another post). On the other extreme, I guess, you end up with linguistic anarchy and you eventually realize that the possibility of communicating our thoughts to one another via language is a tricky business and that some rules and common practices are actually necessary in order to protect the meaning we're trying to convey. I guess, the ideal falls somewhere in between a world with hard and fast rules and a world where chaos reigns.

When do you use a colon?

The wikipedia entry on the colon has a catalogue differentiating between the many functions a colon may play in English sentences, but -- basically -- what follows the colon expands on the idea set out before the colon. Sometimes this can be a list.

He emptied out the contents of his car: two improperly-folded road maps, an empty bottle of suntan lotion, five discarded Starbucks cups, three pairs of cheap sunglasses....

Other times, what follows the colon could stand on its own as a complete sentence but the writer has made the choice to connect these clauses using the colon as a conjunction.

After a decade of civil war, the country's economy was in ruins: unemployment was at an all-time high, and rampant inflation had made the nation's currency all but worthless.

Do you capitalize the first word after a colon?

There seems to be some disagreement on this point. I guess that I was taught that you don't capitalize the first word after a colon (unless, of course, it's a proper noun or something like that that you would capitalize anyway in the middle of a sentence). According to wikipedia, the Brits all follow this practice and never capitalize after a colon. On the other hand, some American writing handbooks say that it is not incorrect to capitalize after a colon if and only if the clause that follows could stand on its own as a complete sentence (as in our second example sentence above). Not only that, but some American style books actually DEMAND that you capitalize the first word after the colon in these situations. The Associate Press and MLA style books both seem to fall into this category. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon.

What about semicolons?

People today probably use semicolons less often than colons. Some recent articles even claim that it's facing extinction. But, anyway, a semicolon can be used as a conjunction to connect two sentences which are in some way related to each other. It seems to be universally accepted that you do not normally capitalize the first word of the second clause when a semicolon is used like this. This usage of the semicolon to connect two related sentences is very similar to using a colon to connect two related sentences; the only difference being that the semicolon's application is even broader (i.e. to use a colon the second clause must expand of the idea of the first clause, but you can use a semicolon if the two clauses are related in any way at all). Given this similarity, and the fact that no one would capitalize the first word after a semicolon, I wonder why anyone would feel the need to capitalize after a colon.

Other uses of the colon

Besides preceding a long list or connecting two independent clauses, a colon can also be used in other ways where I WOULD capitalize the next word. For example, a colon can also be used to seperate a title from a subtitle (e.g. "Glass Slippers: Feminism and Gender Roles in the Cinderella Story") or in plays, transcripts, etc. to seperate the speaker's name from his dialogue (Viceroy Fizzlebottom: Kippers for breakfast, Aunt Helga? Is it St. Swithin's Day already?). It is correct to capitalize the next word after the colon in both these situations.

Moreover, if what follows the colon is a direct quote, set off in quotation marks, I would probably capitalize the first word of the quote. The consumer group's representative strongly denounced the new law: "Rather than protecting small investors as the government promised, the final bill would shelter brokers from liability for past violations." I don't know though; to be honest, I could kind of go either way on this one.


Is your head spinning yet? Like I said, any in-depth discussion of grammar and punctuation usually ends up highlighting the absurdity of attempting to communicate through language at all.  Not only that, but it can sometimes make you more self-conscious and unsure about your writing.  I definitely don't believe that in writing a blog, an informal article or even a novel that one needs to take care to follow all the commonly agreed upon conventions of formal English grammar -- and I sure as heck don't claim to do this myself.  But, nevertheless, my initial reaction to those sentences above remains.  For me they stood out, and my gut instinct told me that they were "wrong."

And so, for what it's worth, I would say that unless you are constrained to follow the MLA or AP rules of style you shouldn't capitalize the first word after a colon. I'm curious to know what other people think: when would you capitalize after a colon?


nola32 said...

as i said when you asked me this before you wrote this post... no caps after colons unless you're talking about proper nouns!! it's wrong, trust your gut!

nola32 said...

and although i know it's not a function of grammar, i feel like this could lead into a post about the difference between an 'american' billion and a 'british' billion-- another gray area that i feel is totally unnecessary and complex. forget the absurdity and complications of expressing ourselves in language, try doing it in numbers!! argh!

Meeg said...

yeah that's enough to make want to start saying "10 to the 9th power" or whatever.