December 18, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: which was or were, capitalization after colon

Posted in capitalization after colon, which was or were at 8:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: which was or which were?

Last week, I promised I would explain why I used a plural verb form in the following sentence:

The sentence could be read to mean which of the two cuisines were liked or if either cuisine was liked at all

Why didn’t I write the sentence this way?

The sentence could be read to mean which of the two cuisines was liked or if either cuisine was liked at all.

I could have; that would’ve been correct, too. If I had written which one of the two cuisines…, the singular verb would be mandatory. Since it was only a choice of two, ‘one’ is implied and so making the verb singular to agree with the implied ‘one’ would be correct.

However, the use of the plural verb is also correct in this instance. ‘Which’ is a relative pronoun, and when relative programs are used as subjects, the verb agrees with the noun preceding it. So with ‘cuisines’ being plural and preceding the verb, the verb can be plural as ‘were’ is in this example.

Simple, right?

Tip 2: capitalization after colon

While we were feasting on moules and frites last night at Point Brugge Cafe, the conversation turned to — as it so often does when dining out — capitalization. Lively discussion ensued about whether or not it was proper to use a capital letter after a colon. No consensus was reached, and I promised that I would address the issue in today’s WLUT. Here goes:

The first thing I found was that no two authorities agree on this issue. There are as many style guides that say never to capitalize as there are advocates for capitalization. With that as background, I tried to find some common middle ground that we can all be happy with. So, here are my rules for using capitals after colons:

1. If a quotation follows a colon, the first letter of the quotation should be capitalized.

The first line of Moby Dick is this: ”Call me Ishmael.”

Aside: My dictation software translated the ”Call me” to ”commie” which was fun, and amazingly, it typed Ishmael correctly!]

2. If a complete sentence (independent clause) follows a colon, the first letter of this sentence can be capitalized or not.

If I told you once, I told you a 1000 times: don’t separate items in the list using semicolons.

If I told you once, I told you a 1000 times: Don’t separate items in the list using semicolons.

Personally, I don’t see the need for capital letters in this situation and would only capitalize the first letter if I wanted to put heavy emphasis on that part of the sentence.

My last thought before jumping over the side: Abandon ship!

3. If a sentence follows a colon is an explanatory statement and another explanatory statement follows, then the first letter of the first explanatory statement can be capitalized.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat: First, you can try using a razor. Second, wax? Third, you can ask the cat sweetly.

Again, I don’t see the need for this capitalization and would probably not do it myself (see below). However, if you do adopt this convention, please make sure you use it consistently throughout your document.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat: first, you can try using a razor. Second, wax? Third, you can ask the cat sweetly.

4. If the phrase preceding the colon is very brief and what follows the colon is the real point of the sentence, use a capital letter.

Remember: The last one in the pool is a rotten egg.

5. If what follows a colon is not an independent clause, do not use capitals. Often, what follows a colon is a list.

I am going to Whole Foods, and I’m going to buy some groceries: free range chicken, organic apples, imported Reggiano Parmesan cheese, and some lovely flowers.

Note: Notice that you should not use semicolons to separate items in the list after a colon. You would only use semicolons if the list items have internal commas, and then you’re using the semicolon to separate items for the sake of clarity.

And that’s about it.

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