Vile New York Times colon usage & looking at the lonely sentence.

The New York Times isn’t alone in making me ill over its colon usage. But I adore the Times and read it faithfully, so I’m daily aggrieved. The usage I detest: capitalizing the first letter of the clause after a colon. In this style, incomplete sentences escape the initial capital. But independent clauses unfortunately do not.

Here’s an example in the second sentence of Frank Bruni’s recent column “Trump is Never to Blame”:

The buck stops with Sean Spicer, who kept wandering from the script like a toddler into traffic. All he had to do was stick to his lines: The president’s proposals are the wisest.

Maybe I’m seeing many more colons-plus-capitals in the Times because influential editors there love colons. Or more of their writers (including civilian contributors) are using them. Maybe we are in a national mood to spew our colons?

The Chicago Manual of Style sanely eschews the Times’s practice; the only time an independent clause after a colon is capitalized is when there are a series of sentences afterward. Here are the examples it lists:

• The study involves three food types: cereals, fruits and vegetables, and fats.

• They even relied on a chronological analogy: just as the Year II had overshadowed 1789, so the October Revolution had eclipsed that of February.

• Many of the police officers held additional jobs: thirteen of them, for example, moonlighted as security guards.

• 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?

Among other things, what makes me hate the Times’ and others’ usage here—the Times appears to be following The Associated Press Stylebook, so this hideousness is widespread—is that the capital is ugly and totally unnecessary for meaning. Worse, it destroys readers’ pleasure in making their little jump between sentences. Readers can do it! And they should and they must, even when a colon sends their noses into a brick wall. Any sentence both stands alone and relies utterly on what comes before and after. So always the little leap.

My true pig story—properly punctuated!

Here’s a true story in which I’ll use a colon before an independent clause in the first sentence of the second paragraph:

I knew a farmer who had a sow who learned to escape by ramming herself through an electrified fence. Hot wires hurt. Even if briefly. The swine knew this. But oh, the rewards of freedom! So she’d run full bore, as it were, at the fence.

And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming: before she was shocked, she’d start screaming. Which was how the farmer knew his pig was out again. Inside his house, he’d hear her cries as she ran, unfettered and unharmed, at the waiting fence. I wonder if what really motivated her was rage—at injustice, since, technically, the fence hurt her before her crime.

Now I like colons better than semicolons, aesthetically, but I’d really have to think about using a colon there. I wouldn’t if a publication’s style was to capitalize independent clauses after colons. The idiocy of this stylistic practice is that, following its hazy logic, the first word in an independent clause after a semicolon should really be capitalized too:

And, knowing she’d suffer, she’d start screaming; Before she was shocked, she’d start screaming.

Now I really feel nauseous. I mean, look at it.

Do you follow the Times’s colon usage? How can you live with yourself?

Gary Lutz ponders the glory & terror of the sentence. 

They were hot there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died.— Ben Marcus

There’s a sentence snapping with stressed syllables, cited by Gary Lutz in his interesting essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” for The Believer. Lutz writes:

The fewer unstressed syllables there are, the more sonic impact the sentence will have, as in Don DeLillo’s sentence “He did not direct a remark that was hard and sharp.” You can take this stratagem to breathtaking extremes, as Christine Schutt does in her sentence “None of what kept time once works.” Schutt’s sentence should remind us as well that we need not shy away from composing an occasional sentence entirely of monosyllabic words, as Barry Hannah also does in “I roam in the past for my best mind . . .”

This passage interests me partly for how hard it is to process “fewer unstressed syllables” instead of the positively phrased equivalent—“more stressed syllables”—followed by DeLillo and Schutt’s even harder to understand negative sentences, which must’ve been done for a reason. But yes, the power of monosyllabic words. As in the King James Bible. After leaving journalism, I went on a bender with fat words—moreover, furthermore, nonetheless, however. One day, amidst a long penance of later writing, I noticed myself seeking the shortest word. All else being equal, I’d learned, on my own dime, that short words are better. This is my beef with those who warn writers off the thesaurus. It can remind you of a great short word, often ancient. One with biblical impact.

Which brings Lutz to sentences made from such words. By writers he discovered “who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. . . . [A]s if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.”

Some writers say they write because they love making sentences, and maybe that’s true. Having that love, or discovering or kindling it, seems necessary. But giving sentences their proper loving attention takes time, for me—typically I first spatter page with them, anxiously fighting off the void. As Lutz observes,

The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish.

Fighting first fear, and then slashing at numbing received usage and their own human flat-footedness, writers see again they’re really writing songs. Maybe they started out trying for an opera. But joy abides, all the same, in a good song.

12 Comments

  • Hi, Richard! I know what you mean about the misuse of colons. I go by the old style of what I believe is Sheridan Baker’s “The Practical Stylist,” in which unless memory fails me, it says a colon is both preceded and followed most usually by independent clauses, and, as you note above, is only followed by dependent clauses if they are in a series. But I have a different beef, about which I believe you wrote some time ago: I hate and resist any other use of the comma in a series of three or more other than the so-called Oxford comma. It’s my favorite punctuation hero. I love to point out errors, for example, which read like this one and which eschew the Oxford usage: “The three women Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Valentino, and John Glenn share the same birthday.” And while on the subject of the comma, I have to tell you about a funny tee shirt which helped reconcile my 14-year-old nephew to investigations of proper punctuation. It read: “Let’s eat Grandma.” “Let’s eat, Grandma.” “Commas save lives.”

    • Richard says:

      Absolutely, Victoria, I’m an Oxford comma person too. The Times, again: they don’t use the Oxford comma, per AP style, but use Mrs. and Mrs. in front of murderers. If it’s to save space, losing that measly comma, then just ditch the honorific—that’d save way more space.

  • Lutz may find the sentence to be an “inhospitable” and “lonely place,” but inexperienced writers, or more accurately, those deemed to need remediation, seem unaware of this problem. They fill each sentence to the brim with unneeded words and deal with a multitude of issues that may be only vaguely related to each other. Far from being claustrophobic, the remedial writer’s sentence seems to have no boundaries.

    • Richard says:

      Good point, Clay. Mileage differs! I have heard more than one writer say writing “gets harder,” even as they improve. Standards go up?

      • Yes they do! For students, the best outcome is for them to raise their own writing standards, once they’ve left the classroom and the threat of a bad grade is no longer hanging over their heads.

  • Ah, so much to say here! I think I’ll write a blog post. That’s the problem when I read you: It inspires me to write, and is one reason I put it off – reading you that is. Interestingly, and I’m going to leave it this way, my AutoCorrect capitalized the first word of the sentence after the colon. You can add Apple to your list.

  • dclaud says:

    Richard, my friend, I’m not with you on this one. As someone who edits different publications, it seems to me not only perfectly reasonable to accept and follow whatever style the publication adopts, it seems counterproductive to worry about it. Driving to D.C., the speed limit is 55 on some stretches of road, 65 on others and 70 in places. I like going 70, but I don’t chafe because a municipality or county has decided that 55 is the speed they want to live (and die) by. That seem analogous to rules about commas, capitalization and other debatable fine points of grammar??? If the copy editor in charge likes capital letters in whole sentences after colons, so what. Give them to her, I say. Copy editors need all the power and gratification they can get.

    • Well, I wrote this confusingly, I realize. Simply put, I prefer Chicago Style to Associated Press. The first sin of the latter is banning the serial comma; the second is its preferred colon style. I was a reporter long enough that that feels traitorous, but Chicago’s is a more considered and elegant approach, maybe because it’s aimed toward books, not ephemeral newspapers.

      • dclaud says:

        Agree! I despise AP style for the most part, especially thing like abbreviating St., Rd. and Ave. to save ink and paper, which is not an issue anymore.

  • Where’s the love button? I am laughing out loud for the first time this week! (Yeah, it was sort of a rough one.) Thank you!! Maybe I wouldn’t be laughing if I didn’t, 100% agree with you. My favorite sentence:

    Maybe we are in a national mood to spew our colons?

    Sometimes I have to follow AP style because I freelance for a few local newspapers and magazines. Using AP, I always feel like I’m wearing the wrong color for my complexion. No matter what, I will never use a colon followed by a capital. Eeeewww! That’s as distasteful as putting mustard on your homemade ice cream.

    Have a lovely weekend, Richard. And thank you for the funny post, which is also a beautiful tribute to the mysterious ways we make ink squiggles on a page mean so much.

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