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 let’s boil them down.
First let’s look at when you don’t 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 sentences.  

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 salutation

Dear John:
So far I haven’t received your check.

  • The material preceding the colon is introductory.

Remember:  The eggs must be at room temperature.

Remember that the colon consists of two stacked periods (:) with not a comma anywhere in sight.  Don’t mistake it for a semicolon (;), which besides looking different, has entirely different functions.  The colon, as the British say, is a “full stop.”  The semicolon means pause but don’t 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 Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com.

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