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Casagrande: When to capitalize after a colon

May 25, 2012|By June Casagrande

Some interesting language questions have shown up in my inbox recently.

The first is from David in Glendale, who had a question about this sentence, which appeared in this column a few weeks ago: "Little did I know that I'd be the one getting the lesson, or that the lesson would be this: My knowledge isn't as vast as I thought it was" ("An important lesson about commas," May 12).

One letter of that sentence caught David's eye: "I wonder about capitalizing 'My,'" he wrote, "and what rules might apply."

The most important rule that applies is: Unless you're a professional editor, you probably don't have to worry about this at all. It's mainly a style matter, which means that a capital or a lowercase letter could be right in different contexts. But for inquiring minds, here's how to make the best choice.

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Associated Press style says that you should capitalize the first letter after a colon only if that letter begins a complete sentence. "Here's a fact: My friend Stephanie is awesome." But you should lowercase the first letter after a colon if what follows is not a complete sentence. "I'll tell you who's awesome: my friend Stephanie."

So here's a pop quiz. In AP style, would you capitalize the G in the following sentence? "Here's a thought: G/go away."

This sentence illustrates one of the most common slip-ups by people who actually know the rule. They think that because "go away" doesn't have a subject it's not a complete sentence. But it is. Imperative sentences like "go away" are complete, they just leave the subject implied. It's "you." That's why a capital G should come after that colon in news style.

Chicago style, used in books and magazines, has a different rule. The colon must introduce at least two complete sentences in order for the letter that follows to be a capital. "Here's a thought: Go away. Don't come back." Otherwise, Chicago says, no capital: "Here's a thought: go away."

Another reader had an interesting question about where to put an object pronoun: "I hear it from other people, I've seen it written in newspapers, and it always jangles in my ear. 'Driving her car, she ran him over.' Shouldn't this be 'She ran over him'? Since 'over' modifies 'ran,' the verb might be an idiosyncratic 'to run over' and 'him' is the object. Or what?"

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