Questions on Colons


Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate): What is the correct use of a colon in a sentence? Example: "I hit him with a bat: I did not like him at all." Is this correct? I've always wanted to know because I like to use them for varie ty when writing. Thanks!

Answer: Do I sense an underlying current of hostility? It must be close to the end of the semester. I will not toy with your patience.

I recommend against using a colon in this kind of construction, though a semicolon might work. Colons do more than mark a break in grammatical construction; they show a content relationship between the elements.

In the example you give, the relationship between the elements is at best implied. You're asking the colon to do too much work. The reader would prefer you to supply some words that show the relationship. In this case, the dislike may be causing the ho stility. If so, can you see where you might want to place a because?


Question: It wasn't clear on your web site whether you would accept inquiries from non N.C. State-affiliated questioners. But I'll give it a shot, just in case. I am helping a newly formed publication house device their house style manual, and t he following question about capitalization after colons came up.

Answer: I'm always happy to answer questions from off-campus--and as a matter of fact, the traffic on the line is about evenly split. I doubt, however, that you will appreciate my position on house style manuals. I am firmly against them. As a w orking editor, I find them a maddening and unnecessary nuisance. I recommend that you choose a published style manual from the many excellent manuals available in print, and then, if you absolutely must, write an addendum of not more than one page of term s of art for your field of specialization. No term should appear on this list unless its form is different from the form that would be generated by your chosen style manual.

My reason for taking this position is dead simple: A style manual is an efficient working tool in publishing. If you make the tool less efficient, the task is complicated, not simplified. Most competent freelancers will not work for publishers who ask them to use unindexed house manuals. And if they do, they warn the publisher that their fee is likely to be doubled.

The Chicago Manual of Style (5.103) states that if the material introduced by a colon is a formal statement, it should begin with a capital letter.

Question 2: What precisely is a formal statement? Is it a complete sentence? Is it an injunction?

Answer: A formal statement is indeed a complete sentence. It may well be more, but it doesn't really matter what else it is. You need to scan upward a bit in Chicago to the conclusion of 5.97: "In contemporary usage, however, [relating cl auses] are frequently separated by a semicolon or are treated as separate sentences." The only exception to 5.103 is, in fact, for relating clauses. Otherwise the rule is simple: If the material following the colon is a complete sentence, it begins w ith a capital letter. The middle example in 5.103 is a relating clause, and it would be better punctuated with a period instead of a colon.

Thus, in contemporary usage, you can assume that any complete sentence following a colon begins with a capital letter.

I am a big fan of The Chicago Manual of Style, but I have to admit that most style manuals do a better job with this than Chicago. This section has not been changed in several editions of the manual. The editors ought to consider w hether after a couple of decades it may now be safe to recommend a consistent use of "contemporary style."


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