March 24, 2008

Colon rage

Says geography professor Ron Johnston of the University of Bristol, in a letter to Times Higher Education (March 6, 2008, p. 29):

I note that in his work on the use of colons ("Colonic information", 28 February) James Hartley has adopted the appalling American practice of following a colon by a capital letter. I note that you have not followed him in your leader in the same issue, and trust that you will continue to use English English.

Some people really do have the threshold on their appallingness meter set to the wrong value, don't they? If we are going to use up the word "appalling" on a tiny variation in orthographic conventions, what kind of adjective will be left to describe the taste of fermented soy beans in methylated spirits, or the sound of a cat being electrocuted during a child's violin lesson?

The alleged datum to which Johnston is so super-sensitive is that in British printed prose the first letter after a colon within a sentence is not capitalized. But naturally, this is never true if what follows the colon is a direct quotation, a proper name, a capital-letter abbreviation, or any other case where initial capitalization is normal as in (British) examples like this:

BBC One today: The Passion (

Explanation of the main types of committees: Select, Joint and General. (

So it's not, surely, the mere sight of a capital letter following a colon that sets him off. What's more, the contrast with American usage is by no means fully general. Professor Johnston is wrong if he thinks there is always a capital letter after a colon in U.S. sources; consider a recent example of New York Times usage:

But he is making his foray even as he embraces what much of the world sees as the most hated remnant of the Bush presidency: the war in Iraq. (

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says nothing about a British/American contrast, but only that "the colon is sometimes followed by a capital letter", and that "It seems best in such cases to take the colon as marking the boundary of a sentence" (see p. 1736).

I have done only a small amount of investigation, and don't intend to spend a great deal of time on this rather trivial topic, but I am not sure there is a robust dialect contrast here (though there may be). It certainly seems to be mostly or entirely with full independent clauses following colons that we get capitalization, as in these cases:

March security updates: Download now to help protect your computer (

But it's like this: If you keep eating the same fried chicken every night, you get tired of it. (

Both the examples cited by The Cambridge Grammar are of this sort, with independent clauses after the colon.

But anyway, whether or not this is the correct linguistic generalization about the sporadic occurrence of capitalization after colons, let's face it (and I'll follow the American capitalization convention at the risk of driving Professor Johnston over the edge): A man who thinks this is the kind of thing that should be described as "appalling" is a man who should consider whether it's time to switch to decaffeinated.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 24, 2008 04:20 PM