When do you use capitals after colons? Today’s punctuation bugbear . . .

Last Thursday’s blog posting was deferred until now, due to system changes with Canadian Web Hosting.  Thank you for your patience!

I’m often asked by clients of my editing services how to know when to correctly capitalize words that follow a colon. When I refer to the “rules,” I sometimes find those clients stop listening (lol)! So, from The Chicago Manual of Style (TCMS), here’s a more comprehensible reply:

TCMS says that “A colon introduces an element or a series of elements illustrating or amplifying what has preceded the colon . . . .” (E.g.: “George was faced with a difficult choice: Should he tell what he read in the letter and spoil the surprise? Or should he remain silent and risk that Natalie would leave town, before the time of the party?”)

In the example just given, the “S” in “should” and the “O” in “or” are capitalized, because the colon introduces two sentences. Logically, this makes sense, as the capitalization clarifies the beginning point of each of the two sentences that follow it.

In fact, the first word after a colon will be capitalized (i) if it is a proper name; (ii) when it introduces two or more sentences (as above); (iii) or when it introduces a speech in dialogue, or an extract.

Most of us have no trouble with capitalizing a proper name after a colon. But rule (iii) may require some examples to clarify. A speech in dialogue will look like Shakespeare or another play, as in the example from TCMS:

“ Michael: The incident has already been reported.

Timothy: Then, sir, all is lost!”

And an “extract” would function like this: “McLeod ends her Regency story by quoting Sir Reginald:And that the men have women like you to sustain them.’ ”

These rules are simpler in application and use than they sound. And yet, you’ll often find capitalization used where it isn’t needed!

I hope this posting clarifies for you the use of capitalization after colons. Used correctly, capitalization (especially after colons) makes your copy read cleanly and professionally.

Do you have a particular punctuation or grammatical bugbear? Please send it to me via my “contact” page! I’d be delighted to broaden this conversation.


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