Most people find colons to be more intuitive than semi-colons, but even so, it helps to have a clear idea of when to use them, rather than just a general feeling. Some confuse them with semi-colons, or have a general uncertainty about which is appropriate and, where intuitions are confused, it’s easy to go wrong. There are also a number of myths about colons. All of which can turn something that’s actually quite straightforward to use into an intimidating nightmare.
But never fear! Rhube is here!
What I’m gonna do, first off, is give you the rules of colon use. If you follow these, you’ll be doing it right. But I’ll also go on to debunk some of the myths about colons that might be floating around confusing you about which rules are the real rules. Then I get into what this rules business is about, anyway, and my thoughts on how to walk the line of creativity vs intelligibility in the matter of using and breaking the ‘rules’.
Colons: the Rules
When to use a colon:
1. to introduce a list (such as this list)
2. to introduce an explanation or example that clarifies the clause that precedes it
The example in my excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate (above) performs both these functions (lists often perform an explanatory or expansive role for some aspect of the clause that precedes them):
Calith learnt all the skills he was going to need in battle: sword fighting, lances, archery and that sort of thing
This is both a clarification of the kind of skills Calith needs in order to go into battle, and a list of those skills.
Note that sometimes (usually only in non-fiction works) a colon can be used to introduce what is called ‘displayed material’. It’s ‘displayed’ in the sense that it’s set off from the rest of the text – typically by being placed on a separate line (or lines), with extra line space before and after, and often also indented (set further into the page horizontally), as is the case with the quotation above. Displayed material will perform one of the two roles listed above, but note that listed items are usually only displayed where they constitute a full proposition (statement/independent clause), rather than a single word or brief phrase. Quotations are usually only set as displayed material if they are quite long, or if they are of a form where parts of the text are divided by ‘lines’ (i.e. poetry, lyrics, plays).
Styles differ as to how displayed propositions should be treated. These can be numbered (’1, 2, 3…’, ‘i, ii, iii…’, ‘a, b, c…’) or bullet-pointed. Bullet points are less accessible (they are harder for screen readers, used by blind and visually impaired people, to process), so I try to avoid those. If you do use bullet points, some people will tell you to put a semi-colon at the end of the bullet point. Grammatically, this is wrong. Bullet points are used for independent clauses, just like semi-colons, but they render the semi-colon unnecessary – they perform the same role. However, I have been told that bullet points are made more intelligible to screen readers if used in conjunction with semi-colons, so then you have to choose between style and accessibility. I prefer not to use them at all to avoid the conflict.
Numbered lists introduced by a colon also should not have terminal punctuation. A lot of people want to use a full-stop at the end of each one. This doesn’t make sense, in that each is part of a list introduced by the colon, so they’re all part of the same sentence, and therefore shouldn’t be punctuated by full-stops. You also really ought not to include more than one sentence in one bullet point or numbered proposition (where introduced by a colon) – it’s supposed to be just one point you’re making, and if you’re using more than one sentence, you’re making more than one point. If you really feel the need, try a semi-colon instead, but where possible, consider if the point doesn’t really deserve it’s own line. Also, consider that numbered lists permit of more than one level. Your first level can be numbered ’1, 2, 3…’, and then you can have sub-lists of points dependent on 1, or 2, or 3, numbered by ‘a, b, c…’ or ‘i, ii, ii…’ (convention is to avoid using the same type of numbering more than once in your list, as this confuses the reader and inhibits your ability to refer back to numbered statements later on). Some people like to put a full-stop at the end of the final numbered statement, ending the ‘sentence’. I prefer not to. I follow OUP style, which treats displayed lists as a break in conventional punctuation, but I can see the argument the other way, and have worked with style guides that recommend that.
At the end of the day: if it’s up to you, and there is disagreement amongst style guides, pick what you like and stick to it; if you’re working for a company or person with a specific style guide, you follow the style guide, regardless of person feelings.
A lot of people think that you need a capital letter after a colon. You do not. The thinking is that, when it comes to colons and semi-colons, you obey the dot at the lower level. I.e. colons have a point at the bottom, so they should be treated like full-stops, and the next letter has a capital letter; semi-colons have a comma at the bottom, so they should be treated like commas. This is misguided. There are no full-stops or commas in either colons or semi-colons. They are their own symbols, they merely resemble commas and full-stops in form. If you’re using a colon or a semi-colon then you are making the decision that you want whatever follows to be treated as part of the same sentence as what has gone before. So you don’t use a capital letter after a colon as though you were starting a new sentence.
EXCEPT, where a colon introduces displayed material that is the start of a new sentence (typically only in quotation), OR where a colon introduces a question. Not all style guides agree on these exceptions. But the thinking is that sometimes a colon allows you to introduce a whole new sentence. This is typically only in the case of questions, because the tone of the independent clause following the colon is entirely different to the tone of the sentence prior to the colon. Prior to the colon is not a question, after the colon is, and we indicate that by using a capital letter as though it were a new sentence.
Personally, I’m inclined to never use a capital letter after a colon. However, when I’m editing, I follow the guide given. It’s like the golden rule of editing and proofreading: house style always trumps personal preferences.
Another myth is that you can also use semi-colons to introduce lists and explanatory clauses. I don’t know where this one comes from, but I suspect it originates in a desire to use semi-colons combined with an uncertainty about when to use them. Some people seem to view semi-colons as anathema, others as though they are a mark of sophistication. At the end of the day, they are neither. Colons and semi-colons are tools, and to be effective they need to have discrete roles.
Rules, flexibility, and creativity
You may be concerned about this laying-down-of-rule-ness. Didn’t I say in my first post that it’s all just convention, and a lot of the conventions conflict? Well, yes. All of language is convention, and language is by nature fluid and dynamic and always changing. The flipside of that is that we need to hold some stuff still in order to make sense of the rest of the moving masses. And, actually, as much as language is fluid, the vast majority of it is widely agreed upon within the language – that’s what distinguishes one language from another. In English, we all agree that a cat is a ‘cat’, whereas in French it’s a ‘chat’, and whilst those are similar, they are distinct, and we distinguish ourselves as language users by which group of rules we broadly stick to. And whilst larger groups of languages share similar punctuation rules, there can be some variation, there, too. So, where the English use quotation marks, the French use guillemets: « »
So, some of it is about making sure we’re all doing enough the same to be understood. Most writers are in the business of wanting to communicate with their readers as easily as possible, so it’s best to follow the central conventions of your language. When I say that something is a ‘rule’, that’s what I’m saying: that if you don’t follow it it will be jarring and/or confusing to your reader.
Sometimes, you may have a specific reason for wanting to do something even though it might be jarring to the reader – or even because it will – especially if you’re into experimentation with form and style. You just need to be sure you know why you’re doing it, and what affect you’re trying to achieve. Emily Dickenson made heavy use of the ‘dash’ in place of conventional punctuation, both to give her poems a sense of urgency and as a deliberate violation male, patriarchal restriction on female creativity. e. e. cummings’s use of lowercase and avoidance of full-stops also represent a break with tradition and a rejection of artificially imposed absolutes. These are interesting and creative innovations that have changed the way we view language today. But if you think using a semi-colon where a colon is needed sends a similarly important message, you may wish to check with yourself whether the message you intend is going to clearly come across.
I really hate the oft-asserted idea that you ‘need to know the rules before you can break them’. There’s a strong whiff of elitism about it, and I feel like it introduces an extra layer of uncertainty that inhibits creativity. Most of us have successfully internalised the majority of the rules of grammar. Human beings are really startlingly good at understanding one another and how to use at least their first language. I think if you tell people that they need to know the rules before they can break them there’s an implicit attempt (conscious or not) to control who gets to be an innovator.
I don’t think most people who say ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them’ consciously mean to inhibit other people – I think there’s a deeper, better truth, which is what they intend to convey, bundled up with this uncomfortable baggage. And this is the truth that there is a difference between making a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply ignoring the rules because you think they don’t matter.
It’s a fine line. It’s difficult to provide a rule for when it’s ‘OK’ to break the rules, which is why I think people go for the overly restrictive version – it’s easier to encapsulate. What is the difference between a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply thinking that grammar doesn’t matter? Is not thinking that traditional grammar doesn’t matter itself an act of rebellion? I think the answer is ‘In some cases’.
How I would make the judgement call is based on how likely your aim is to come across to your reader. At the end of the day, language is all about communication. You can choose to stop trying to use the form of language – the signs and syntax that are usually used for words and sentences – to try to convey meaning, but at that point, you’re no longer engaging with language at all. You just look, superficially, as though you are. As long as you’re still trying to convey something to your reader, the success of that act is still going to play a role in determining whether your methods were suitable to the task.
Text-speak is widely criticised as laziness and a failure to learn rules – always be wary of criticisms of language innovation that go in the direction from privilege and age towards the less privileged and youth, especially where they use words like ‘laziness’. But what we see is actually the development of new rules designed to facilitate a specific purpose: quick and easy communication. The users of this language group are often criticised from outside by complaints of ‘But I can’t understand a word you’re saying!’ It’s tempting to see this as satisfying my criterion of failure-to-convey-meaning, but the crucial point is that the ones who are failing to understand are not the intended recipients of the meaning. Text-speak has its own grammar and rules - rules which are understood by those who use it. Those who will not take the trouble to learn those rules when they wish to communicate with those who use it, they are the ones who are being lazy. Or, perhaps more accurately: disingenuous. For if they had really wanted to communicate, they could have learnt the rules – they are not that complicated. The ire comes not from the laziness of text-speak users, but from a frustration with being expected to learn new rules when one has already learnt a set of rules for a shared language, and from the sense that one is being excluded from communication by those to whom one expected to be able to communicate with ease.
Which, of course, is one of the purposes of text-speak: to exclude parents and the uninitiated. One can have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with being excluded from a conversation, but falling back on elitism to try and bully the other person into talking in a way you can understand is an action one should be wary of.
What I find particularly wonderful is that from functional adaptations, like text-speak, and deliberately exclusionary languages, like 1337 (AKA ‘Leet’), we see an evolution of language experimentation, and joyful play in other internet-languages, like lolcat, and, more recently, doge. There have even been translations of The Bible into lolcat, and a LOLCODE coding language. These are breakings of the rules of grammar with the intent to forge new ones, and for which an expression of joy and playfulness is a central component of most communications using these rules. Laziness? No, not in translating the Bible into lolcat, or devising a whole computer code in lolcat. But there is a definite intent and the rules have been broken and reforged with purpose.
And note that, although people have since retro-analysed lolcat and doge for grammar rules, these evolved organically. You can break the traditional rules of grammar without either trying to or even necessarily being able to articulate the traditional rules yourself.
But if you want to be a successful communicator with some audience, you should think about whether the way you break old rules or forge new ones is likely to communicate the desired effect upon the reader. Even if you only think about it in such as way as ‘If cats spoke, it would be with imperfect grammar and spelling’ or ‘If dogs spoke, it would be with great enthusiasm and they would be easily distracted’. Playing with languages doesn’t have to be stressful or overthought, but understanding the rules can help you to make informed judgements about when to break them.