A Capital Idea
by Cherie Tucker
A student at the University of Washington just asked me when to
capitalize words that follow colons. She wondered if there were
rules or if it was just a matter of taste. Well, yes, Virginia,
there are rules. In fact, there are two pages of them in The
Gregg Reference Manual, but letís boil them down.
First letís look at when you donít have to capitalize.
Do NOT use a capital if:
The material following the colon is not a complete sentence.
There are two ways to get here: the long way and the longer way.
The material following the colon is used to explain or
illustrate the first part.
Be careful not to overbeat the batter: fold it gently with a wooden
spoon or rubber spatula.
DO capitalize if:
The material following the colon requires special emphasis.
I'll say this once more: We need everyone for this project.
The material following the colon introduces two or more
We just got the news: First, the chef won't be here. Second, the
banquet manager is on vacation.
The material following the colon starts on a new line, such as
in lists like these or the body of the letter after the
So far I havenít received your check.
Remember: The eggs must be at room temperature.
The material preceding the colon is introductory.
Remember that the colon consists of two stacked periods (:) with not
a comma anywhere in sight. Donít mistake it for a semicolon (;),
which besides looking different, has entirely different functions.
The colon, as the British say, is a ďfull stop.Ē The semicolon
means pause but donít flush, because there is more to come.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washingtonís Editing Certification program and edits