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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.

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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.”

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I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.

England has no kidney bank, but it does have a Liverpool.

Be kind to your dentist. He has fillings, too.

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.”

68 One-Minute English Usage Videos

English In A Snap: 68 One-Minute English Usage Videos FREE 

Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.

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