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Colons: Don’t Let Them Be a Pain in Your Ass

The Editing Hour is back today with everything you want to know about colons. First, eat lots of fiber to keep your colon clean and, if you’re over 50, consider getting a colonoscopy to test for polyps and colorectal cancer, and oh, wait … wrong type of colon! Let’s try this again.

I’ve always followed the rule that colons only come after a complete sentence and that, with regards to capitalization, they should be treated like periods while semicolons should be treated like commas. In other words, capitalize a sentence after a colon and leave it lowercase after a semicolon. (For more about those other little devils, see my posts titled semicolons and semicolons revisited.)

However, according to Grammar Girl, that is the “conservative grammarian” rule, and the more modern usage is to begin many sentences after a colon with a lowercase letter. Here are the latest, greatest rules about colons from Grammar Girl and CMS 16 (that’s the sixteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style for those of you who aren’t in the know) about COLONS:

1. A colon can (still) ONLY be used after a complete sentence, not after a sentence fragment.

WRONG: I would like some: bananas, apples, and pears.
RIGHT: I would like three different fruits: bananas, apples, and pears.

The second sentence works because “I would like three different fruits” is a complete sentence.

2. The clause or items after a colon must elaborate on or clarify the clause before the colon.

When a colon is used like a semicolon, “to indicate a sequence in thought between two clauses that form a single sentence or to separate one clause from a second clause that contains an illustration or amplification of the first” (CMS 16), the second sentence does NOT have to begin with a capital letter:

“The officials had been in conference most of the night: this may account for their surly treatment of the reporters the next morning.” (CMS 16)

3. When a colon is used to introduce a formal statement, quoted dialogue, or multiple sentences, it is always followed by a capital letter.

We quote from the address: “It now seems appropriate …” (CMS 14)

Here’s some writerly advice: Show, don’t tell.

These are some of the things I hate about you: You pick your nose. You walk too slowly. You leave Butterfinger wrappers scattered on the bathroom floor.

Now, go forth and use your colons responsibly! And don’t forget to eat your bran.

20 comments to Colons: Don’t Let Them Be a Pain in Your Ass

  • mrjmorgan

    Awesome stuff!!

    It wouldn't be
    "All the king’s horses said: 'Nay!'"
    But rather, "All the king’s horses said, 'Nay!'"

    A colon can never come after a verb! Colons can be used with quotations when the quote helps the previous clause. Example: The music took me back to those words by George Harrison: "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

    Also, don't forget the use of a colon after a formal salutation (Dear Mr. Colon:), between title and subtitle, and Bible chapter and verse.

  • katmagendie

    I many times will use an em-dash instead of a colon. I am in too much love with em-dashes, and in fact, almost used it here, twice. Yeah. Lawd!

  • Bruce

    Thanks for the clarification. I've always found punctuation both very annoying, but neccesary.
    (Does that comma go there?)

  • Bruce

    'Both' doesn't belong. Forgive me I'm having English class flashbacks.

  • annerallen

    I believe you and mrjmorgan are both wrong. It's "All the king's horses said: 'Neigh!' " 🙂

    I believe if you use the comma instead of the colon, the 'nay/neigh' has to be lower case. But I might be wrong. Like katmagendie, I stick with em-dashes whenever possible. I read some guy who said colons have no place in fiction. That's silly, but if you try to avoid them, life is easier.

    Thanks for tackling this tough problem.

    • meghancward

      No, no, Anne. The horses were taking a vote on whether to accept a reduction in their oat allotment. They all voted "Nay!" 🙂 But Mr. Morgan is right that you can't put a colon after a verb in place of the comma we typically use. I changed the example in the post to something less interesting than talking horses. I recently had an editing client who used a LOT of colons, which got me to researching when it's okay to use them. I was shocked to discover that they can be interchangeable with semicolons and that you don't always need a capital letter after a colon, as I was taught as a wee lass.

  • Kristan

    Woohoo, good to know that my colon instincts are strong!

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  • meghancward

    Ha! I've had two already. We have a lot of cancer in our family. TMI?

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    Thanks Meghan for your enlightening post on colons. I always had trouble using it at the right place; but you have put all my doubts and fears to rest. I am looking forward to more such content from you. microsoft outlook e-mail

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