Grammar Colons and Capitals |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

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.”

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

12 responses to “Colons and Capitals”

  1. Ted Jones says:

    Is it incorrect to use a question and semicolon like” cant go home?: cant go nowhere” . ?

    • The punctuation is nonstandard. A question mark usually stands alone unless it is followed by quotation marks. We cannot give specific recommendations on punctuation since your examples are not complete sentences. Also, there should be an apostrophe in the word can’t, and the word nowhere is grammatically incorrect. It should read “can’t go anywhere.”

  2. Tarek says:

    I have some sentences that need to be corrected. I could not find a certain topic for confusing sentences so I posted them here. I hope I could get the correct answers:
    What’s wrong in these sentences:
    The shopper picked up the bag and rapidly turned to go, leaving their change on top of the counter.

    2. Skimming along on the top of the waves on our boat, the sun felt warm and relaxing.
    3. We will have been gone two weeks before the accident happened if we had left when we said were going too.
    4. They said that one of the swimming pools that you have used have to close.
    5. The town counsellor argued that the town’s position was untenable and they needed to rethink the underlying arguments.
    6. The shopper picked up the bag and rapidly turned to go, leaving their change on top of the counter.

  3. vincent says:

    Im just wondering if campsite is a proper noun that needs capitalisation or is it a common noun, eg. Geelong campsite? many thanks

  4. Allen H. says:

    My local post office hung a sign that says, “Put all trash in containers and treat your post office respectably.”

    I know, in my heart-of-hearts, that they meant to say, “respectfully”. Yet, I cannot pinpoint a grammatical reason why.

    Both are adverbs to describe “treat”.

    My best guess is:

    “Treat your post office [respectfully],” means to show the post office respect.

    “Treat your post office respectably,” means that the manner in which I treat the post office should be worthy of respect.

    Am I on the right track? If so, either word seems that it would convey the same point,[throw your trash away]; but then, why does it feel so wrong? Thank you for your help and a wonderful site.

  5. Cindy M. says:

    Should the word after the hyphen have a capital on it?

    1) Develop a Comprehensive Safety Program for this Specific Industry – this program ensures we employ strict safety standards whether building in Canada, the United States or abroad.

    2) Increase and Improve our Materials Manufacturing and ensure they are all installed to STEBBINS’ quality standards by experienced crews due to our strict QA/QC program.

    3) Maintain our Experienced Engineering Department – in addition we have modernized our designs through the use of better equipment and technologies. We have also accumulated a wealth of empirical end user data with performance and process change information experienced by our vessels over several decades of service.

    • We consider it an error to use hyphens in this way. That is not the function of a hyphen. A colon would be appropriate. Sometimes a long dash works. Despite widespread misuse of hyphens for this purpose, we advise against the practice. We would capitalize “In” in number 3 because it is followed by more than one complete sentence. However, the writer has some leeway. See our post Colons and Capitals for more information.

  6. Devika says:

    Please tell me if this is correct:

    There was a book on the table entitled: The Haunted Building.
    There was a book on the table: The Haunted Building.

    I am asking about the use of the colon. Can it be used in both sentences like this?
    Can I use a colon like this after the word entitled?

    • Since a colon means “that is to say” or “here’s what I mean,” a colon is only necessary in your second example. We recommend you use the word “titled” rather than “entitled.”

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