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Colon vs. Semicolon: Punctuation Smackdown

Colon Duels Semicolon

Colon and Semicolon Duel for Punctuation Supremacy

When a comma is too wimpy and a period is too severe, you need a colon or a semicolon—but which?

Jeeves the Colon

A colon is like a butler: it introduces things. It holds open the door and says, “Mrs. Herringbone to see you, Ma’am.” The sight of a colon raises expectations for what is to follow.

  • A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.
  • Only one creature in these woods burbles like that: the jabberwock.
  • Your plan failed, Count Svitavsky, because you forgot one thing: Fifi is allergic to jujubes.

A colon can introduce a list, an example, an explanation, or a conclusion, but what comes before the colon must be able to stand on its own as a sentence. If you find yourself putting a colon after a verb or a preposition, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

  • Wrong – Their big night consisted of: a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
  • Right – Their big night consisted of a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
  • Wrong – Over the course of the evening they stole: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • Right – Over the course of the evening they stole hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • Right – They stole only items beginning with an H: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.

The colon can also be found after the salutation in formal letters, before a character’s dialogue in plays and scripts, after the Q’s and A’s in Q & A, between a title and subtitle, and before a long quotation.

  • To whom it may concern:
  • Rick: Here’s looking at you, kid.
  • Q: How do porcupines have sex? A: Very carefully.
  • “Margarine: Why It’s Wrong”
  • In a passage marked with two stars for being of particular literary merit, Stella Gibbons wrote:

Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Semicolon!

When you have two sentences that are so closely related they beg not to be separated, or that proceed in parallel like well-rehearsed synchronized swimmers, join them with a semicolon. But be sure the two clauses are independent (that is, able to stand on their own as sentences).

  • I looked in the mailbox; there was no squid.
  • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

Commas would be inadequate in the examples above, causing painful comma splices without an and or but to help them (more on this here), but a semicolon is made of stronger stuff. It’s a kind of Supercomma, able to accomplish feats mere commas cannot. When your sentences are long and complicated, especially if they’re already liberally sprinkled with commas, use a semicolon where you would normally use a comma. Commas can separate phrases and keep them from squabbling, but when your party gets out of hand, it’s time to call in the bouncers—semicolons.

  • Outside the agent’s door stood an astronaut, sweating under his helmet; a ballerina, patting her bun and fluffing her tutu; a nun, whose wimple was in danger of poking someone’s eye out; and a sasquatch, whose oversized footprints could be seen up and down the hall.
  • You could scale the wall with your grappling hook and creep through the mansion on silent feet, unnoticed by the sleeping baron, until you found the hidden room and, using your hard-won skills, opened its lock with your little picks; but you still wouldn’t have a clue how to get inside the safe.

A semicolon is often used before expressions like that is (or i.e.), for example (or e.g.), however, therefore, indeed, and namely.

  • You’ve eaten the last olive; however, I won’t hold it against you.
  • I am full of consideration for others; for example, I never practise the tuba after midnight.
  • Her new fairy wings were a great success; that is, they worked brilliantly until she hit the ground.

However, don’t bring in a semicolon if you don’t need the extra muscle.

  • The ranks of the fearsome Termagant Army were filled by former ladies of the evening, i.e., prostitutes.
  • The new lord had a phobia of porcelain figurines, therefore we hid all the bric-a-brac in the cellar.

A judicious use of colons and semicolons can separate elegant prose from mediocre muddle. Now that you know what each mark does, you can feel confident when pulling them out of your writer’s toolbox. Go forth and punctuate!


It’s Raining Homonyms


Rain of Terror

The words rein and reign sometimes get swapped by mistake. Reins control a horse, so you want rein for expressions having to do with control or restraint: rein in, give free rein. To reign is to rule, so use reign when you’re talking about dominance: reign of terror, reign supreme.

  • Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.
  • She gave her decorator free rein and ended up with a rococo bathroom, complete with flushing cherubs.
  • Long after the sheep’s reign of terror had ended, the farmer still flinched at the faintest “baa.”

Straight and Narrow

Strait (a narrow channel between two bodies of water) is often wrongfully neglected in favour of its more familiar cousin, straight. But strait is the word you want for straitlaced, straitjacket, dire straits, and straitened circumstances. Just remember that strait relates to everything narrow or constrained: a corset laced very tightly, a garment used to restrain patients, or a tight spot.

Straight, on the other hand, suggests a lack of deviation: a straight line, straight to the point, straight-shooting, etc. Straight also implies honesty—no detours from the truth.

  • Straitlaced men were like catnip to the succubus.
  • The straitjacket was nothing to Houdini, but the bubble gum stymied him.
  • Give it to me straight, Joe: do I make you hungry?

Capital Letters in Titles: Headline Styling



Headline Style May Be Used for Captions

Titles of books, movies, and TV shows are conspicuously full of capital letters, but not every word of a title should be capitalized (no matter what iTunes may think). So how do you know which words get the capital treatment and which are business as usual? There are rules, but they can be wobbly, and even the respected Chicago Manual of Style admits they’re arbitrary. Still, most people can agree on a few rules for writing titles, a.k.a. headline style:

1. Capitalize the first and last words.

2. Capitalize everything that isn’t

an article (the, a, an)
to or as
a coordinate conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor)
a preposition (to, from, on, out, of, at, with, into, up, across, after, beside, etc.)

Unfortunately, the preposition rule has a lot of exceptions. Some style guides pick a number of letters—say, three—and capitalize any preposition with more:

  • Truck-Stop Dining From Applesauce to Waffles

Others insist all prepositions should be lower case, though this can look weird with long prepositions like concerning.

Another problem with prepositions is their slipperiness. The same words can also be found playing adjectives, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions, in which case they do need to be capitalized:

  • Canoeing up the Volga With Evgeni
  • But: Why You Should Never Look Up Old Friends on Facebook
  • The Day after Tomorrow
  • But: How to Move On After You’ve Had a Bad Perm

(If you decided to use the three-letter rule, after would be capitalized whether it was a preposition or not—a good reason to use this rule and keep your life simple.)

3. When a hyphen changes two words into one (called a hyphenated compound), you should capitalize both words. Or you should only capitalize the first. It’s your choice—pick a rule! And, of course, be consistent.

If you choose not to capitalize the word after the hyphen, there are a few exceptions you need to know. Obviously, words that would normally be capitalized should keep their capital letters, hyphen or no hyphen:

  • The Growth of Anti-Peruvianism in Post-Blair Britain

Also, compounds that start with prefixes too feeble to stand on their own as words (such as pre- and anti-) need two capital letters to be taken seriously:

  • My thesis is called “Anti-Establishmentarianism in Pre-Revolutionary France.”

4. Don’t tamper with foreign names. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little de should stay lower-case no matter where it may find itself.

Trust your instincts. If something looks weird, change it. Some expert, somewhere, will probably agree with you.

When to Use Headline Style

You’ve mastered headline style and you’re ready to wield it—but on what?

1. Use headline style for the titles of books, movies, TV shows, Web sites, magazines, articles, short stories, poems, plays, songs, paintings, and statues.

  • That week’s episode of Magnum, P.I. was called “No Such Thing as Too Hairy.”
  • You can learn how many paper clips it would take to circle the Earth on a Web site called Brain-Numbing Factoids.
  • Check out “Healing Your Cat With Crystals” in this month’s Feline Fanatic.
  • I read “Ode to a Nightingale” in John Keats: The Complete Poems, and it made my nose bleed.
  • The Burghers of Calais is Rodin’s heaviest sculpture.
  • My life is best illustrated by Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

2. Headings and sub-headings within a document are usually written in headline style (as in this blog), but regular sentence style is also acceptable.

3. Some people use headline style for the numbered parts of a book (e.g., Chapter 3, Appendix C), but sentence style (chapter 3, appendix C) is also correct. Be aware that parts of a book when discussed generally are always lower case:

  • The introduction was all right, but I found the third chapter confusing and the index useless.

4. Finally, signs and notices are often written in headline style, unless they’re so long as to look awkward. The same applies to mottoes.

  • She flaunted her nonconformity by ignoring the No Smoking signs.
  • The sign in the boutique read “Any children left unattended will be given free kittens.”
  • They say the state motto of Alabama is At Least We’re Not Mississippi.

It’s true that most grammarians are anal-retentive nitpickers, but capitalizing properly can save your readers from real confusion:

  • I can’t get Hair out of my head. (I watch too many musicals.)
  • I can’t get hair out of my head. (I will never be bald.)
  • I dig earth. (I’m a gardener.)
  • I dig Earth. (I grok this planet.)
  • I love Dick. (I’m a Nixon supporter.)
  • I love dick. (’Nuff said.)

Capitalization: Embrace Your Shift Key


Capital letter apotheosis

Capitalization Epiphany

Don’t treat your Shift key like it’s radioactive, but don’t scatter capital letters willy-nilly, either. The following rules will help you know when—and when not—to capitalize.

Obviously, a sentence should start with a capital letter; unless it’s enfolded in the arms of a bigger sentence, that is:

  • Lacking a harpoon (there were none in the car), we had to make do with a knitting needle duct-taped to a hockey stick.

Even enclosed in parentheses, a sentence on its own needs a capital letter:

  • Giant squids are slippery. (That’s why we needed the harpoon.)

The same is true of a sentence in quotation marks, even if it’s snuggled inside another sentence:

  • A passing driver pulled over and said, “Call me Ishmael.”

But you don’t need a capital letter for a snuggled sentence that doesn’t take quotes:

  • The question was, did it eat terriers?

Capitalization After Colons

A colon should be followed by a capital letter…sometimes. Capitalize when the colon introduces more than one sentence:

  • His dilemma was unbearable: If he left the car, he’d be mauled by bears. If he stayed inside, all the ice cream would soon be gone.

But use lower case for everything else (with the exception of quoted sentences):

  • Only one thing could calm his fury: tiddlywinks.
  • Her temper was legendary: she’d once slapped a stock boy for wearing odd socks.
  • His next words made her fear for her life: “We’re out of peanut butter.”

Another, simpler, rule is to capitalize after a colon whenever it introduces a complete sentence:

  • Her temper was legendary: She’d once slapped a stock boy for wearing odd socks.
  • Only one thing could calm his fury: tiddlywinks.

Both rules are valid. Pick one and stick to it.

Capitalizing Lists

Capitalize the first words of vertical lists that are itemized with numbers, letters, bullets, etc.:

To hunt a Snark you will need

  1. Thimbles
  2. Forks
  3. Railway shares
  4. Soap

Non-itemized lists can be left in lower case.

My creative process comprises four activities:


Computer Terms

Capital letters are often used for computer keys, menu options, and commands:

  • Hit the Return key.
  • Choose Print from the File menu.
  • Click on the Save button.

The Name Game

Capitalize the names of people, places, groups and organizations, titles of rank, religions and their practitioners, days and months, historical periods, and brand names. Parts of this rule are flexible, and parts are not; a dictionary can be very helpful here. As always, be consistent.

Names of People

In addition to people’s names, terms used as names must also be capitalized:

  • I enjoyed my date with the Headless Horseman, but his kisses were pumpkiny.

This includes personifications, which are abstract ideas (e.g., nature, death, fortune) behaving like people:

  • When Death comes to fetch me, I’ll be hiding under the bed.

Some words may or may not be capitalized, depending on the context. If you can substitute Joe, then you need a capital letter:

  • She told us Pa was in the shed wrestling the pigs.
  • My pa is a champion pig-wrestler.
  • Our mom dabbles in the occult.
  • I’m getting Mom a crystal ball for her birthday.
  • Of course, Aunt Millie wanted a cut of the action.
  • She’s our greediest aunt.
  • Her engines can’t take much more of this, Captain!
  • The captain pushed the Enterprise as fast as its special effects would allow.

Names of Places

Capitalize the names of places, such as Timbuktu, the Deep South, and the Fertile Crescent. Directions are only capitalized when used in the name of a specific region:

  • Ever since I saw Doctor Zhivago, I’ve wanted to live in the North.
  • We travelled north until the yetis complained.
  • I love the boneless attitude on the West Coast.
  • He lives with two ferrets in a trailer on Mexico’s west coast.

Words like street, bridge, square, avenue, etc., are capitalized when they follow a name:

  • The mime silently threw himself off Burrard Bridge.
  • Many a puppeteer has made a fortune in New York City.
  • The puppeting arts are well respected in the city of New York.

Titles of Rank

Capitalize a title if it comes before a name, but not if it comes after. If you can replace the title with Mr. or Ms., then it should be capitalized; otherwise, leave it in lower case:

  • Send the plutonium to Director of Operations Sue Urquart.
  • Sue Urquart is the director of operations for Terrorism Inc.
  • I was named after President Nixon.
  • The cleaning staff were fed up with the president’s slovenly habits.
  • The army was led by Queen Zenobia.
  • Zenobia was the queen of Palmyra.

However, the UK and Canada both write the Queen when referring to the current monarch. The US is more democratically lower-case.

Historical Periods

Capitalize historical periods with distinctive characteristics, such as the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the Roaring Twenties:

  • During the Depression she made buttons with her teeth.
  • Economists greeted the recent depression with smug pessimism.
  • She dived head-first into the hedonism and drug abuse of the Sixties.
  • He inherited a fortune in the fifties and had spent it all by the end of the sixties.

Brand Names

Brand names, or trade names, are capitalized until they become so common that the capital letters wear off with use. For example, Kleenex is capitalized but jeep is not. To know whether or not to capitalize a trade name, check a dictionary.

Verbs derived from trade names are not capitalized. If you use a Xerox machine, you are xeroxing.

Words Derived From Names

Someone from Quebec is a Quebecer; someone who follows Marx is a Marxist. However, a member of the Nazi Party believes in nazism, and someone reminiscent of Don Quixote is quixotic. There is no logic here; consult a dictionary.

Next week: Capitalizing titles of books, movies, Web sites, and more

Comma Chameleon



Comma vs. Tsunami

The uses of the comma are almost endless. (Or maybe it’s just my blog posts that seem endless.) Today I give you a grab bag of comma deployments, including introductory clauses, multiple adjectives, places, dates, and more. Dig in!

Introductory Phrases: The Big Tease

Some phrases beg the question, then what? When such a phrase is poised, oozing anticipation, before the subject of your sentence, corral it with a comma. (If you want to get grammatical, these phrases are dependent clauses, which start with if; adverbial phrases, which start with adverbs; and participial phrases, which start with participles.)

  • If I told you the recipe, I’d have to kill you.
  • After they all stumbled home at dawn, I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake.
  • Having recently lost his mind, the Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

With short adverbial phrases the comma can be left out:

  • On Tuesday I went mad.

If the phrase comes after the subject, you don’t need a comma…

  • I’d have to kill you if I told you the recipe.
  • I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake after they all stumbled home at dawn.

…except when it’s a participial phrase:

  • The Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer, having recently lost his mind.
  • The Duke, having recently lost his mind, was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

Adjective Conga Lines

When you have two or more adjectives describing the same word, put a comma between them:

  • The demon made a dedicated, insinuating telemarketer.

But there are times when you don’t want to sprinkle commas in your adjective line:

  • He always came to work wearing a bright red power tie.

How can you tell the difference? Try plopping the word and between adjectives. If it works, use a comma; if it doesn’t, don’t.

  • The demon made a dedicated and insinuating telemarketer. (It works: insert comma.)
  • He always came to work wearing a bright and red and power tie. (No, no, no. Skip the commas.)

Places and Dates

When place names have more than one part to them—for example, city and country—the second part needs commas on either side:

  • She’s going to a philatelists’ convention in Gdansk, Poland, next month.
  • Walla Walla, Washington, is only funny if you don’t live there.

The same principle applies to dates:

  • The lovers met on Thursday, May 6, at the garbage dump.
  • On June 23, 1982, I made a pact with Mephistopheles.

But certain date configurations don’t take commas. The British-style date (day, month, year) is comma-less. So is the month and year only, or a well-known holiday plus year:

  • Mr. Bond and his attractive companion will land at the villain’s secret island lair on 12 August 1964.
  • If all goes as planned, our new adopt-a-rodent program will be running by May 2010.
  • New Year’s Day 2000 was a bit of a letdown for end-of-the-world enthusiasts.

Oh No You Don’t!

Introductory words such as yes, no, oh, and well should be followed by a comma:

  • Yes, I do think it was tasteless of you to ask them about wife-swapping.
  • Oh, I never feed the wolves after dark.
  • No, you won’t like what you find in my basement.
  • Well, I meant to bring dessert, but I got hungry on the way over.
  • Man, these flashbacks are really distracting.

Unless, that is, they’re part of a common expression or informal phrase:

  • Oh yeah?
  • Oh my God.
  • Oh no, not another apocalypse!
  • No I won’t!
  • Yes you will!

Also, a question contained inside a sentence can be set off by a comma:

  • The question was, how many hotdogs would satisfy the Ogopogo?

Smoothing the Reader’s Way

Finally, the most important function of the comma is to clarify your meaning, so use one wherever it will keep your reader from becoming confused:

  • She recognized the murderer as he rose from the table, and pointed a trembling finger. (Notice how this sentence’s meaning changes without the comma.)
  • The fleas hopped in, in groups of three.

All these rules may seem a lot to wrap your head around, but a well-placed comma can make all the difference in your writing. Remember: If you’re good to the comma, the comma will be good to you.

Sideshow Commas


Girl With a Pearl Comma

Commas are grammar’s sheepdogs: they keep the various elements of a sentence from running off on their own and causing confusion and panic.

Commas on the Side

Commas are used to set apart non-essential pieces of your sentences. Words such as however and therefore need to be contained by a pair of commas to show that you’re interrupting your sentence with a bit of side business. Like an intermission, your aside may be interesting, but you don’t need it to understand the play.

  • The Countess, however, refused to be seen in a Volkswagen.
  • The chewing gum, therefore, was stuck to the ceiling.
  • Many hobbies can be fulfilling, for example, stamp collecting, dental-floss macramé, and sugar-cube carving.
  • The giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, I understand, makes a lovely companion.
  • Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
  • The double-action shotgun, not diplomacy, was her forte.
  • Quality food, including poutine, is best enjoyed after a night of heavy drinking.

This rule also applies when you’re addressing someone directly:

  • Fernando, I don’t think you understand what this eggplant means to me.
  • Grab a flamingo, everyone, and start playing!
  • Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a go-go dancer!

Sometimes it’s not clear whether the phrase in question is side business or not. (This is when grammarians start throwing around the terms restrictive clause and nonrestrictive clause.) Take, for example, this sentence:

  • My vampire, Duane, lives in the basement rec room.

This is fine if you only have one vampire; Duane can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. But what if you have a harem of vampires stashed in your house? You need the word Duane so your reader won’t think you’re talking about your other vampires, Joe, Hannah, and Billy Bob. When the phrase is needed to understand your sentence (that is, when it’s a restrictive clause), don’t use commas.

  • My vampire Duane lives in the basement rec room. (I have multiple vampires.)
  • My romance novel, Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles, is a real bodice-ripper. (This is my only romance novel. Take out the title and the sentence says the same thing.)
  • My romance novel Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles is a real bodice-ripper. (I have written other romance novels, some of which feature other kinds of lords with different muscles. Remove the title and you won’t know which bodice-ripper I’m talking about.)
  • She carried the shotgun not so much to shoot people as to scare them witless.
  • If you insist on wandering in the woods during the full moon and are therefore bitten by a werewolf, don’t expect sympathy from me.

Sometimes grammarians talk about the that/which rule. This rule decrees that only necessary (restrictive) clauses use the word that, and only side business (nonrestrictive) clauses use the word which.

  • The aliens that invaded my bathtub have used all the soap. (Not to be confused with the aliens in my pantry.)
  • The alien craft, which landed on Tuesday, makes a striking lawn ornament. (Only one alien craft has ever landed in these parts.)

Of course, the British blithely ignore the that/which rule and use which whenever they damn well please. You can too, as long as you’re consistent.

Next week: commas and phrases and clauses, oh my!

Commas, Commas Everywhere



The Mystical, Magical Comma

Like the Martha Stewarts of grammar, commas keep your sentences organized. Sometimes commas are optional, but there are times when you must use them or risk looking ignorant or gauche. So dust off your tux, straighten your moustache, and follow me into the Casino Royale of comma rules.

Commas and Conjunctions: Like Pancakes and Maple Syrup

Use a comma before a conjunction. What’s a conjunction? It’s a word like and, but, or yet that joins two sections of a sentence the way a hitch joins two train cars.

  • I’ve trained the squirrels outside my window to do back flips and pyramids, and we’ll be taking our act on the road next week.
  • He bought the jester’s costume and the floppy hat, but I can’t help feeling his heart isn’t in it.

If a sentence is short and its parts are closely related, you can leave out the comma:

  • I dropped her off at the racetrack and I haven’t seen her since.

Whatever you do, don’t stick a comma in your sentence instead of a conjunction. It simply can’t take the weight, and your sentence will go off the rails:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, I’ve already bought the suction cups.

The above comma needs to be either helped by a conjunction or replaced by a semicolon, which is stronger than a comma:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, and I’ve already bought the suction cups.
  • I’m going as a cephalopod; I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Or if you’re a Hemingway-esque writer who likes ’em short and choppy, you can divide your sentence into two:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod. I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Try not to get overexcited and slap a comma in front of every and or but you see. Conjunctions can be sneaky, and sometimes you’ll find them playing different roles. They don’t need commas when they’re not acting as hitches. Consider the following sentence:

  • I wanted to go to the orgy but couldn’t find any whipping cream.

The second train car (“couldn’t find any whipping cream”) doesn’t have a subject—without the first car we don’t know who was at a loss for dairy products. The I from the first part is doing double duty for both verbs, wanted and couldn’t, which makes this one train car, not two (or a compound predicate if you want to get technical).

  • I wanted to go to the orgy, but I couldn’t find any whipping cream.

In this case we have two subjects and two verbs, which means we have two train cars (or independent clauses) joined by a hitch. As such, this but can take a comma (although the sentence is short enough to go without one if you wish).

Lists: Keeping Things in Line

When your sentence has a list of three or more, use commas to keep them separated and avoid fights:

  • According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ingredients for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster include Ol’ Janx Spirit, seawater from Santraginus V, Arcturan mega-gin, Fallian marsh gas, Qualactin hypermint extract, the tooth of an Algolian suntiger, zamphour, and an olive.
  • A mouse, a duck, a dodo, a lory, an eaglet, and several other curious creatures ended up in the pool of tears with Alice.

You’ll notice both these sentences have a comma before the final and. This is called a serial comma (like a serial killer, only nicer) and it is completely optional. Whether you decide to use it or not use it, be consistent. Dropping or adding it halfway through your writing makes you look either sloppy or just plain confused.

Grammar’s Romeo and Juliet

Avoid the mysteriously common error of putting a comma between the subject and the verb:

  • People who live in glass houses, shouldn’t clean in the buff.

The subject (people) and verb (shouldn’t) are like lovers who long to be together. It would be wrong to come between them.

  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t clean in the buff.

Next week: sideshow commas, the that/which rule, vampires, and go-go dancers.