English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: Post-Colon Capitalization

The most recent installment of Grammer Pole of the Weak showcased the sophistication of Above the Law readers. The poll results show that most ATL readers appreciate the distinction between “that” and “which” (which they like to show off in their legal writing).

Today we tackle an issue that is less clear-cut, which will probably result in a more closely divided vote than last week’s. Here is the issue: What is the proper capitalization for the first word of an independent clause that follows a colon?

If that sounds confusing, please keep reading for clarification….

Here is an explanation, including a fairly pro-capitalization analysis, from one online grammar guide:

One of the most frequently asked questions about colons is whether we should begin an independent clause that comes after a colon with a capital letter. If the independent clause coming after the colon is a formal quote, begin that quoted language with a capital letter.

Whitehead had this to say about writing style: “Style is the ultimate morality of mind.”

If the explanatory statement coming after a colon consists of more than one sentence, begin the independent clause immediately after the colon with a capital letter:

There were two reasons for a drop in attendance at NBA games this season: First, there was no superstar to take the place of Michael Jordan. Second, fans were disillusioned about the misbehavior of several prominent players.

If the introductory phrase preceding the colon is very brief and the clause following the colon represents the real business of the sentence, begin the clause after the colon with a capital letter:

Remember: Many of the prominent families of this New England state were slaveholders prior to 1850.

If the function of the introductory clause is simply to introduce, and the function of the second clause (following the colon) is to express a rule, begin that second clause with a capital:

Let us not forget this point: Appositive phrases have an entirely different function than participial phrases and must not be regarded as dangling modifiers.

There is some disagreement among writing reference manuals about when you should capitalize an independent clause following a colon. Most of the manuals advise that when you have more than one sentence in your explanation or when your sentence(s) is a formal quotation, a capital is a good idea.

And here is an argument against such capitalization:

[P]eople always want to know whether they should capitalize the first word after a colon. The answer is that it’s a style choice, and it depends on what is following the colon. Although the most conservative grammarians say you should capitalize the first word after a colon when the colon introduces a complete sentence, there are a lot of grammarians who say it isn’t necessary.

Since you never capitalize the first word after a colon if it is introducing something that isn’t a complete sentence, I find it easier to adopt the less conservative rule for introducing complete sentences, and then all I have to remember is that the first word after a colon is always in lowercase (unless, of course, it is a proper name or something else that’s always capitalized). But if you are writing for someone who uses a style guide, you should check to see if they have a preference because it is a style issue.

Grammar Girl seems to favor, for simplicity’s sake, always using a lowercase letter after a colon (whether or not what appears after the colon is an independent clause).

But there’s no clear answer here; as noted above, style guides differ on the issue. According to Grammar Girl, the Associated Press is pro-capitalization when an independent clause follows the colon, while the Chicago Manual of Style is anti-capitalization in such circumstances.

If post-colon capitalization is a style issue that’s largely a matter of personal preference — i.e., a question that lacks an objectively correct answer — then perhaps it ought to be decided by popular opinion. Readers, please opine:

In general, should you begin an independent clause that comes after a colon with a capital letter?

View Results

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Colons: Quick and Dirty Tips [Grammar Girl]
The Colon [Capital Community College Foundation]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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