Thursday, June 22, 2006

I Hate Colons

From James

I have this thing about colons. I don't use them. No, not that colon. I'm talking about the ones that stop sentences, rhythm, pacing, flow dead in their tracks. I prefer a nice run-on sentence to one with a ":" in the middle of it. If commas are speed bumps, colons are moats. And yes, I read (and even enjoyed) "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves."

I'm on this topic for a couple of reasons. One, I just had my first colonoscopy this week. I'm not kidding. Now I am talking about THAT colon. A college friend of mine died of colon cancer at age 47, so my wife has been hounding me to get one. The good news is that I'm good for another five years. This is key, because I don't think I could drink another glass of that prep solution any sooner than that.

But I digress. Back to the other colon.

I've been through many copy edits, but I just finished one (my fourth in the last year) on a script called "When Darkness Falls," which will be out in January 07. The copyeditor did a fabulous job overall--much better than most. In case you aren't aware, copyediting is one of those services that has been "oursourced" -- not exactly to India, a la "The World is Flat," but far enough to ensure that the quality will vary tremendously, depending on the freelance copyeditor de jour that the publisher hooks you up with. That's why my acknowledgments contain numerous thank yous to readers who have spotted errors in my books over the years and volunteered to be copyeditors. God bless these folks.

But again I digress. This latest copyedit was unusual because not once, but twice, the copyeditor decided to end a paragraph with a colon. Mind you, I have probably used two or three colons in 11 novels. In dailogue, they make the speaker seem too self important. In narrative, they simply cut the pace--which is sort of important in a thriller, don't you think? Anyway, imagine my surprise when I come to the end of a paragraph and find a colon. This was not a typo. The copyeditor insists that it is grammatically correct.

There was a time (before I had three young children home for summer) that I would have rushed off to some reference source and actually checked to see if a paragraph could end with a colon. I didn't. I simply struck it and inserted a good ol' reliable period. Maybe it's just me, but can you think of any circumstance in which a paragraph should end with a colon:

I can't.

James Grippando


  1. Well, at least it wasn't the very last paragraph...

  2. I like colons VERY occasionally, but the end of a paragraph? That's lunacy.

  3. p.s. maybe the copyeditor was trying to do an emoticon but forgot the mouth part?

    :) ?

    What a stupid thing THAT would have been...

  4. Colons seem better suited for non fiction. For example: medical text books about colonoscopies.

  5. I've seen colons at the end of sentences; or rather, I've seen the phrase following the colon begin with a capitalized word. I believe that's grammatically correct in some cases. But a colon at the end of a paragraph? I'd be surprised, since whatever follows a colon is supposed to be a subordinate clause; used properly, a colon either indicates a long pause (which is why you don't like it)or introduces the rest of the sentence.

    Need more coffee......

  6. Since I am reading this during my lunch break at work, with my trusty Chicago Manual by my side, I have decided to delurk.

    The only possible sentence ending colon would be "The colon may be used instead of a period to introduce a series of related sentences." The example given: "Henrietta was faced with a hideous choice: Should she reveal what was in the letter and ruin her reputation? Or should she remain silent and compromise the safety of her family?" (15th ed., p. 257)

    I can see how this works, but it doesn't seem particularly suited to modern fiction. The example seemed quite gothic, so I downloaded THE MYSTERIES OF UDOLPHO and A SICILIAN ROMANCE from Project Gutenberg. Sure enough, this usage occurs with some frequency (Although whether this is the punctuation of the original text, I don't know).

    But this doesn't take care of the end of paragraph bit.

  7. from Jacqueline

    It was the mention of that pre-colon substance that distracted me. Fleet whatever it is. Like drinking non-diluted Dead Sea with more salt added. I had to go through that a few years ago, and had NO IDEA what that stuff did to you. Never mind the colon, you take that stuff and everything ends in an elipsis ....

  8. True dating story. I met my wife Renee on a blind date: [oh, pardon my colon, Mr. Language Police] Dinner at Max's on Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale. Second date: my colonoscopy (a/k/a :oscopy"). As Jim knows, they don't let you drive home because of the sedation. So, back to that first date: Over the tiramisu, I ask Renee if she'd like to go out again. Sure, she says. "Great," I say. "What are you doing next Wednesday at 5 a.m.?"

    Paul a/k/a Mr. Romance

  9. Poor Henrietta! That IS a hideous choice.


  10. Colons are okay for lists. Maybe a few other place. I've never seen anyone end a sentence with them. I can't imagine that's legal. As soon as I get to work, I'm checking my AP style guide.

    I saw the article on Leap Holes on PW online and it looked fascinating. Good on you for having the first ABA-backed book.


  11. Former English and journalism teacher says, "No. You cannot end a complete paragraph with a colon."

    Weird. Glad you caught it.

    The only time I like to use colons is in introducing quotations in my journalistic writing.

    i.e., Mary Colonscopy added: "I won't have to drink that shit for another five years. Hurrah!"

  12. Amen, brother James.
    I have a thing about semi-colons, so maybe that makes me only half as riled up as you.

    Okay, I can't see ANY instance where a colon or semi-colon shud ever appear in dialogue. But I don't even like them in a novel's narrative. The most effective narrative, to me, is just the writer's voice speaking to me when the characters aren't.

    And I haven't met a human being yet who talked with a : or a ;

  13. Okay, so... I actually landed on this page because I was considering ending a paragraph w/ a colon and decided to google it to see if it was grammatically kosher. Generally, when using a colon to list options, it's within a single paragraph, but what if your list spans several paragraphs?

    For example, I'm writing a memo, and I've already addressed a block of issues, and I'm kind of changing subjects. All that's left to deal with is a series of smaller points, but with a brief explanation included with each. So we're looking at something like:
    "...and then we have a few other points to address:

    [Issue 1. Explanation.]

    [Issue 2. Explanation.]

    [Rinse, repeat.]"

    Does this work? :P

  14. Cwoody: yes, it would. I like colons a lot. Reading authors like Hardy will bring up many a colon. My favourite is a semi-colon though; they facilitate developing arguments that would become lost within a grammatical structure that uses only commas and full-stops to punctuate rhythm and intention. Woo-yay and hooray for the semi-colon!

    (ps. I also came here trying to find whether I could use one. I concluded: yea, if I fancied, but decided not to in this instance.)