Ed’s Casual Friday: After a colon…a hot mess.

And now for something completely different… I’m going to say a few words about grammar, and editors. And colons.

First-things-first for all you authors out there: You need an editor. I don’t even mean at the story/plot/character level, though a good editor is invaluable there, too. For my purposes here I just mean strictly as a proofreader. You may not think you do, but you do, and not because you can-t rite gud English. The problem is that the human brain is a really weird bundle of nerve cells and it can do a lot of stuff that is going to screw you up half the time. For example, yuor brain kan rdea ths sntnace adn undrtsnd it, evan thuogh is it gibberish. That is the brain’s job. It tries its damnedest to make sense out of the insensible, and if something is close enough to a pattern that it knows, it is going to breeze right by and get on with contemplating The Eternal, or girls, or chocolate.

This can be fatal when you are trying to proofread your own writing, because your brain already knows what you meant to say. So if you were even in the ballpark, good enough, let’s move on. Yes, there are a lot of tricks that can help: Reading backwards, blowing up the font, reading out loud, etc. But some things are going to get past you, as your brain knows you meant “read” and not “reed,” and in any case it might be wondering who the D-backs starting pitcher is today. You’re going to need a second pair of eyes that are not attached to the same brain that made any errors in the first place, to have a decent chance at catching them.

Oh, but that’s not all! There is another reason why some sort of “professional” editor is going to save your writerly butt, and that is because the tool we are using to tell the story – language – is a hot mess. The idea that a good proofreader can “fix” any errors, and make the wrong things right, is inherently flawed. “Why?” sez you, and I sez: Because a language is a living thing. It grows, and it changes, and the rules of usage are totally dependent on how fallible, foible-ridden, F’d up human beings are using it right this very minute. Which brings me to colons.

Back in the misty days of yore, when a person had to rise and walk to their television to change channels, I was taught a simple rule for how to capitalize after any colon or semicolon. I won’t even go into usage of those marks, though it has been touched on here at IU before (nods to Cathy Speight). The rule as I was taught it was this: A semicolon is like a comma, and a colon is like a period. Capitalize the next word after the colon, but not after the semi. (Oh, and double space after the colon just like you would after the period, but I won’t even go into that typewriter-era nonsense.)

In preparation for this colon column (ouch), I asked my fellow Indies Unlimited staff if they capitalized after a full colon: Always, never, or sometimes. Some said never or sometimes, several made colon/Milk of Magnesia jokes, then we all started talking about ‘80s pop icon Richard Marx for some reason. It was weird. But the consensus was there was no consensus. Everybody had a rule they had been taught somewhere at some time, and they kept to it. But everybody’s rules were different.

Thus, I turned to that source of all clarity: The Intrawebs. And you’ll never guess…nobody really agrees here, either. I don’t just mean every Tom, Dick, and Harriet can’t cobble one consistent rule together, I mean University websites, Grammar(dot)edu, Strunk, White, and the Chicago Manual all had different things to say on the subject. Most said there were some times you should always capitalize after a colon: Quotes, multiple independent clauses to follow, single word followed by colon, expressing a rule, before a list, court transcripts. But they did not always agree on which of those situations to follow with a capitalized word. In the most common usage where a colon follows an independent clause, the authorities are all over the place. The Chicago Manual says you “may” capitalize, but don’t have to do so. Professional outfits like the Associated Press and the American Psychological Association Publication Manual say “always” capitalize, though of course they aren’t dealing strictly with fiction. Grammarbook says “never.” To no one’s great surprise, it is of course different Across the Pond (or is that “Pound,” with an extraneous “u?”).

Given that the purveyors of official grammatical wisdom can’t agree on what to do after a colon, why am I still saying that a proofreading editor can help with yours? Again, it’s that grey thing in your noggin’. Your brain is going to follow the rule it knows, or thinks it knows, and unless someone else who knows a different rule questions it, you are going to be blissfully unaware that there may even be an issue at hand. But if a proofreader raises a red flag, at least you have a chance to think about it, decide what rule you are going to use, and then make sure you use it consistently. Capitalizing or not capitalizing may be something akin to a style choice at this point rather than a hard-and-fast rule, but if you do it differently in the same situation in the same book, you are inarguably wrong.

So go hug your editor, your brain needs their brain. And don’t get me started on hyphens.


As always in closing, an excerpt from a real one-star review, of a real book, by a real reader.

“It was probably the worst ending to anything I’ve ever read or seen in my whole life- and I’ve watched UltraViolet and Sunshine and read some pretty terrible books.”

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult


M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/[subscribe2]

Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

23 thoughts on “Ed’s Casual Friday: After a colon…a hot mess.”

  1. I am so glad you cleared that up for me.

    This is a terrific post and I have just told my editor that I love her thanks to you.

    I can now go and have a coffee and take it easy again.

  2. Clear as mud. I'll bet Lin loves this – as one who loves to challenge rules. I take it I am now free to do what i please and can quote whatever rule I want to whoever tries to 'correct' me. And I already told my editor I love her – many times.

  3. This retrofitting of the punctuation rules is driving me crazy. Try to find a definitive ruling on whether to add an "s" after an apostrophe when the noun ends in "s". Go on, try it — I'll wait.

    Thanks for the post, Ed. It's good to know that I *might* be right, and it's not early Alzheimer's setting in….

  4. Great post!

    I also frequently google punctuation questions because I see so many variations on what I thought were iron-clad rules.

    I have come up with an interesting hypothesis: I think it depends on the type of book or article you are writing. For example, if I was writing a Political Science analysis article for the Yale Review I would use the most conservative grammar rules. In fiction, however, I think there is a bit more latitude. Characters will not speak the same, and I think the punctuation needs to relax into the language, rather than fight to control it.

    I have had two beta readers and one editor for the current ms I am polishing. I printed it because I no longer can "see" errors on a computer screen.

    I always enjoy your posts.

  5. Thanks all, and yes, just the fact that there are stricter punctuation rules in certain types of writing (scientific or journal articles, etc.) is to me just more evidence that there is not always a "right" way to do just about anything around the margins of grammar issues. Again, I just try to shoot for consistency in my own stuff, and call it close enough. 😉

  6. Thanks, Ed! These are slippery little devils. As a proofreader, I tend to rely on Chicago, with leniency toward a writer's personal style. It's much less confusing than to think, "Well, AP does it this way, but Grammar Girl says this…" Oy. But yes, even though English is a living, breathing thing, certain "rules" are designed to make the meanings of your sentences clear. (And no, I don't know how Cormac McCarthy gets away with it.) Oh, and another thing our silly brains do is to skim over words we might have left out. I write so fast sometimes, just to keep up with my brain, that I blip over the occasional conjunction. Fresh eyes – not my own – usually catch that. Great post!

  7. Thank you for the insight on this, Ed! It's funny how there are these little rules that you follow when you are writing and you don't even think about them. This was one of them for me. I appreciate the advice that whatever rule you follow, just make sure to follow it consistently. And btw- I love my editor and wouldn't think to do a project without her. 🙂

  8. Ed, you are so right about needing a second (sometimes a third or fourth!) set of eyes. Your brain will "TRICK" you! I was fortunate enough to have an editor (and then some for bio's, press releases, summary's, etc…An author's biggest fear is to sign off on their work and then "the unthinkable happens!" What a nightmare! Great article! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Oh! another question, maybe even another article, but…I have been seeing more and more sentences beginning with the word "And." That has always been a big "No-No." What are your thoughts on this?

      1. Renee, the not-starting-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction thing definitely gets a lot of debate, and you see it a lot more now than you did 10 or 20 years ago. Heck, it's how I started this column. 😉

        The rule-of-thumb sort of thing is when you find you've done it, ask yourself if the sentence and paragraph would work without the initial conjunction, and consider if the sentence in question really needs to be connected to the previous sentence, or if it can stand on its own. If the initial conjunction still seems appropriate and it doesn't read too "weird," I go ahead and use it. But really, that is also a matter of style at this point more than an iron-clad "rule."

      2. I know I was not the one you asked but I use both 'and' and 'but' to start sentences. It may not be 'the rules' but in my opinion, for my style, it makes the reading flow better, makes it seem more natural.

    2. My First book "Back From Chaos was originally published by iUniverse. It went through two editorial reviews, a copy edit and a proofread. As well I had four beta readers before that. All that cost me plenty. When I got my book in hand it had two glaring inconsistencies.I fixed these when I republished with Createspace but those blatant errors still get me steamed.

  9. Learning grammar at school would have been so much more fun with 'texts' like this. In fact Ed would have been very welcome as an English teacher except that I don't think he would have enjoyed wearing a wimple.

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