Punctuation & My Pig Tale

Punctuation & My Pig Tale

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

By Richard Gilbert, Contributing Editor

Richard Gilbert

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”:[gap height=”10″]

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’s 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.

Originally published on Richard Gilbert’s Draft No. 4 blog.

2 Responses

  1. I agree with your dislike of this usage (which we think of as U.S.) — but I have a couple of caveats. First, in your example, the colon between “screaming” and “before” would simply be wrong. I can think of no grounds for a colon (and I don’t really understand your reference to aesthetics; I like the look of question marks more than that of commas? but that’s no reason for using them? surely?)

    Secondly, the (admittedly faulty) reasoning behind using a capital after a colon doesn’t apply to semicolons — accepting the rule for one doesn’t imply accepting it for the other. The reasoning is surely that a colon often introduces a complete, new independent sentence. That’s not a good reason for using a capital after a colon even when there is no such complete sentence — but even if it did, the reasoning doesn’t apply to semicolons. Semicolons don’t introduce sentences, they can link sentences, but those sentences are treated as components of one long sentence, because they’re closely related or in some way coordinated.

    Capitalisation after colons is irritating — but worse than irritating is the insistence by the “Chicago Manual of Style” on falsifying quotations by including within the quotation marks punctuation that isn’t in the original. Now that’s a fight worth devoting one’s life to.

  2. Peter,

    In my example, the colon is used for emphasis, and partly functions by slowing down the reader, as does the repetition of “she’d start screaming.” The colon isn’t wrong, therefore, except under the most pedantic interpretation of correctness. An editor might flag both as superfluous, true, and I’d fight him.

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