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Should the first word after a colon be capitalized? Which of the following is correct?

  1. For example: This.

  2. For example: this.

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This can go either way. If you are starting a complete sentence that represents a summation of what came before, you are certainly entitled to capitalize the sentence.

Here's an example of such a sentence: There is a sentence after the preceding colon.

But if you are using the colon to offset a list or other material that does not form a complete sentence, it makes no sense to capitalize what follows:

Here are some examples of breakfast foods: eggs, bacon, toast, hash browns, orange juice, coffee.

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    @Maxpm -- Unless you get unlucky with something like: Here are some places where they speak English: America, most of Europe, Canada. =)
    – BeemerGuy
    Dec 16 '10 at 22:52
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The answer is culturally dependent. In English, we would not capitalise after a colon (unless the next word was a proper noun). However, it appears that in American English the rules are different... and different depending on whose style rules you are following.

For example, you may follow a colon with a capital if it follows with:

  • a proper noun
  • direct speech
  • a complete sentence
  • two complete sentences

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colon_(punctuation)#Use_of_capitals

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    by English, you mean British English
    – Theta30
    Nov 26 '11 at 23:06
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    No, I meant 'English'. By all means, if you speak a variant, call the mother tongue 'British English', but don't expect us to.
    – CJM
    Nov 27 '11 at 9:28
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    So, are you talking about the English you spoke in the 1600s when you colonized us, or the variant you speak now?
    – KutuluMike
    Sep 11 '15 at 11:59
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    @MikeEdenfield I think he was talking about the language spoken in England, namely English. Since in Poland they speak Polish, and in France they speak French, in Spain - Spanish, is it little wonder that the language spoken in England be called English.
    – WS2
    Nov 6 '15 at 15:55
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    @CJM So is Jennifer Frost whom you quoted on the British side of things. The second sentence in this answer is disingenuous and factually incorrect, meriting a downvote from me. No such blanket statement can be made about English, and juxtaposing it with American English, which it subsumes, makes no more sense than to juxtapose ‘women’ with ‘people’. British English is no more the “mother tongue” of English than American English is; to claim otherwise is staggering ignorance of language development. Oct 10 '16 at 15:58
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Style guides and dialectical conventions aside (and giving due recognition and exception to an old device whereby the colon served the function of inverted commas to introduce a directly spoken sentence, as in Father said: You cannot do that) the whole question of capitalisation hinges on the fact that A COLON DOES NOT END A SENTENCE THE WAY A FULL STOP DOES. There may indeed be a sentence after the colon, but the original sentence has not ended yet!

With the exception of proper nouns, it is amazing to see capitals in the middle of a sentence, and very unusual (to be polite) -- in fact, highly irregular -- to see experts accepting it, even if apparently sanctioned by certain style guides and conventions!

I mean no disrespect, and do acknowledge the legitimacy of said usage because of the Wikipedia article, but I consider it yet another liberty taken with the fundamentals of the language (which, of course, English cheerfully allows!)

However, I have never come across it in a proper book, whether British, American or Indian, in my 33 years of reading (I am nearly 38 and have been reading since the age of five) so it seems to be very much a 'technically barely correct' niche usage.

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    Kindly bear with me while I point out that a controversial or niche usage or convention which is accorded legitimacy in only one or the other variant of English is best not recommended as 'correct usage' to readers from all over the world, because they are likely to interpret it as 'universally correct usage' which it is not, possibly leading to a great deal of criticism from unwary souls when they proceed to use it based on our recommendation! Apr 19 '17 at 6:23
  • I'm with you, ES. I grew up in the 60s in New York and New Jersey. It seems to me that the idea of following a colon with an uppercase letter (except for the beginning of a proper noun) was pushed by some hack journalists and caught on. Dec 1 '17 at 4:51
  • It is an example of a possibly historically legitimate style convention that became accepted or re-accepted in some circles as an "alternatively correct" orthography (while being considered a technical error by others) @Blaise Zydeco. The 'rule' is not clear and not universal. As I said there is a lack of unanimous consensus for its "correctness" and here in India most English teachers would mark it "wrong" so we need to be careful while "recommending" this style to an unwary learner. Dec 1 '17 at 4:55
  • I'm talking about the current incarnation of the rule. Most influential of these in the U.S. is probably the New York Times Manual of Style. archives.cjr.org/language_corner/how_to_use_the_colon.php Dec 1 '17 at 5:21
  • Thanks for the illuminating link @Blaise Zydeco! Influential style manuals confer legitimacy on 'new incarnations' of rule variants, leading to widespread practice. What is so confirming/ clarifying/ convincing on that page: "In American English, to capitalize or not to capitalize is not a question of grammar: It’s a question of style." I would amend that slightly and call it "a stylistic decision." According to some experts, 'consistency is most important when it comes to style.' Dec 1 '17 at 6:21
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Here is a quick review of what various style guides say about whether to capitalize or to lowercase the first word after a colon.

From The Associated Press Stylebook (2007):

Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence: He promised this: The company will make good all the losses. But: There were three considerations: expense, time and feasibility.

From Allan Siegal & William Connolly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, revised edition (1999):

Ordinarily lowercase the word after a colon. This is especially true if the colon is used between complete clauses, to underscore their relationship more emphatically than a semicolon would: He had reason to be afraid: the war was only weeks away. To err is human, to forgive divine: that is a noble sermon. As an exception, the word after a colon is capitalized if it begins a complete sentence formally introduced by what precedes it: She promised this: The company will make good all the losses. In news copy, though, resist the staccato mannerism that uses the colon as a kind of trumpet fanfare, in place of a verb (The reason: they want the Midwestern farm vote). And in headlines, uppercase any word directly after a colon.

While a comma introduces a direct quotation of one sentence that remains within the paragraph, use a colon to introduce longer quotations.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010):

6.61 Lowercase or capital letter after a colon. When a colon is used within a sentence, as in the first two examples in 6.59 [namely, The watch came with a choice of three bands: stainless steel, plastic, or leather" and "They even relied on a chronological analogy: just as the Year II had overwhelmed 1789, so the October Revolution had eclipsed that of February"], the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name. When a colon introduces two or more sentences (as in the third example in 6.59 [namely, "Yolanda faced a conundrum: She could finish the soup, pretending not to care that what she had thought until a moment ago was a vegetable broth was in fact made from chicken. She could feign satiety and than the host for a good meal. Or she could use this opportunity to assert her preference for a vegan diet."]), when it introduces a speech in dialogue or an extract (as in the examples in 6.63 [for example, "Michael: The incident has already been reported."], or when it introduces a direct question, the first word following it is capitalized.

From Words into Type, third edition (1974):

Following a colon. The first word after a colon usually should be capped when it begins a new sentence.

In conclusion I make this prophecy: The coming year will show greater advance on this line of research than have the past ten years.

They can be summarized as follows: (1) All trade is essentially an exchange of goods and services. (2) Goods are given ...

The following were elected: president, William Jones; vice-president, Frank Smith.

You need tools to carry on in a science course: not just workbench tools and laboratory test tubes and beakers, but books, magazines, visits to shops and museums.

... two kinds of information: (1) the results of research that has been completed; (2) the results of applied methods in the same field as the problem chosen.

From The Oxford Guide to Style (2002):

5.5 Colon The colon points forward: from a premise to a conclusion, from a cause to an effect, from an introduction to a main point; from a general statement to an example. It fulfils the same function as words such as namely, that is, for example, for instance, because, as follows, and therefore:

There is something I must say: you are standing on my toes.

It is available in to colours: pink and blue.

French cooking is the restaurant's specialty: the suprêmes de volaille Jeanette was superb.

She has but one hobby: chocolate.

The weather grew worse: we decided to abandon the piano.

...

Use a colon to introduce direct or paraphrased speech or quoted material more formally or emphatically than a comma would. A capital letter follows:

Sir Toby: 'Peace, I say.'

Lords, ladies, and gentlemen: Allow me to present tonight's guest of honour.

He asked a simple question: Who was first?

I told them only yesterday: 'Do not in any circumstances tease the cheetah.'

From Michael Swan, Practical English Usage, second edition (1995):

1 explanations Colons (:) are often used before explanations.

We decided not to go on holiday: we had too little money.

Mother may have to go into hospital: shes got kidney trouble.

2 direct speech A colon is used when direct speech is introduced by a name or short phrase (as in the text of a play, or when famous sayings are quoted).

POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET: Words, words, words.

In the words of Murphy's Law: 'Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.'

In other cases, direct speech is generally introduced by a comma (see 455.6).

Stewart opened his eyes and said, 'Who's your beautiful friend?' But long passage of direct speech may be introduced by a colon:

Introducing his report for the year, the Chairman said: 'A number of factors have contributed to the firm's very gratifying results. First of all, ...'

...

5 capitals In British English, it is unusual for a capital letter to follow a colon (except at the beginning of a quotation). However, this can happen if a colon is followed by several complete sentence.

My main objections are as follows: First of all, no proper budget has been drawn up. Secondly, there is no guarantee that ...

In American English, colons are more often followed by capital letters.

From Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, third edition (2009):

Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it's a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized. The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph [not reproduced here] follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view—urging for a lowercase word following the colon—is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the to clauses together. That's the style used throughout this book. ...

Although the uppercase convention is a signpost to the reader that a complete sentence is ahead, that signpost generally isn't needed.

Those who follow the lowercase convention typically recognize an exception and capitalize what follows the colon when the colon introduces a series of sentences: "He made three points: He wanted some water. He needed to sleep. And he wanted to go home."

From The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005):

with words, phrases, or clauses A colon introduces words, phrases or clauses that explain or amplify what has preceded.

Suddenly I knew where we were: Paris.

The army was cut to pieces: more than fifty thousand men had been captured or killed.

When a colon introduces a complete sentence, the sentence may begin with a capital letter, depending on the publication's style:

The senators had only one goal: They hoped to persuade the board to drop its accounting reforms.

More often, however, the sentence following the colon is not capitalized.

From [Merriam-]Webster's Standard American Style Manual (1985):

7. The first word following a colon may be either lowercased or capitalized if it introduces a complete sentence. While the former is the usual styling, the latter is also quite common, especially when the sentence introduced by the colon is fairly lengthy and distinctly separate from the preceding clause.

The advantage of this particular system is clear: it's inexpensive.

The situation is critical: This company cannot hope to recoup the fourth-quarter losses that were sustained in five operating divisions.

NOTE: For the sake of consistency, many authors and editors prefer to use one style or the other in all cases, regardless of sentence length. The capitalized style is more common in newspapers, but overall the lowercased styling is more frequently used.

8. If a colon introduces a series of sentences, the first word of each sentence is capitalized. [Example omitted.]

From Kenneth Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993):

COLON This punctuation mark (:) can (1) signal a forthcoming list, as in He sold sundries: needles, thread, pins, buttons, and thimbles; (2) introduce a further amplification or a summary of what has just been said, as in After years of work, he finally had it: the championship; (3) let one clause explain another, as in He was late: his car had broken down; (4) lead into a long quotation, as in Jefferson wrote: When in the course of human events, ...; and (5) do such separating tasks as these: Henry IV, Pt. I, II:iv:122; Dear Sir:; New York: Longman, 1987; and 11:15 a.m.

From Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, fifth course (1977):

NOTE The first word of a formal statement following a colon [as in the case of "Patrick Henry concluded his revolutionary speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses with these ringing words: Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased..."] is generally capitalized; however, in the case of informal statements (see ... (3) below), the first word often starts with a small letter.

(3) Use a colon between independent clauses when the second clause explains or restates the idea of the first.

The graduate was nervous about leaving for college: she felt safe, secure, and happy in her mom town.

The reasons for the success of the play are obvious: it has fine actors, witty dialogue, and tuneful music.

From Hodges' Harbrace Handbook, thirteenth edition (1998):

Style Manuals vary in their instructions on whether to capitalize a complete sentence after a colon. MLA permits the use of a lowercase letter, but APA does not. All style manuals, however, use a capital letter to begin a quoted sentence that follows a colon.

Claire Safran points out two of the things that cannot be explained: "One of them is poltergeists. Another is teenagers."


Assessment

The advice offered by various style guides suggests rather more agreement than disagreement regarding whether to capitalize or lowercase the first word after a colon. Three points are especially noteworthy.

First, in cases where a colon appears in a run-in sentence (as opposed to marking the boundary between the end of a regular text paragraph and the beginning of a display list (such as a numbered list or a bulleted list in which entries appear on separate lines), the guides unanimously endorse lowercasing the first word after the colon if it is not the start of a complete sentence (unless it is all or part of a proper name).

Second, the guides that address the issue are unanimous in endorsing the capitalization of the first word after the colon if it is the first of more than one sentence introduced by the wording before the colon.

Third, lowercasing the first word after colon when the text following the colon is a single complete sentence is more common than capitalizing it, both in the U.S. and in Britain. Although Swan suggests that "In American English, colons are more often followed by capital letters," this is true only if we understand "more often" as meaning "more often than in British English"—not as meaning "more often ... than by lowercase letters." In fact I am aware of only three U.S. style guides—AP, Words into Type, and (according Hodges') APA—that state a broad preference for beginning complete sentences after a colon with a capital letter rather than with a lowercase latter. A fourth style guide (American Heritage) is agnostic on the question, but notes that the lowercase style is more common. The others either endorse starting with a lowercase letter in all instances involving a single sentence (Chicago and Garner) or note that lowercasing is "ordinarily," "usual[ly]," or "often" used in such cases but recommend basing the choice on the length of the sentence (Merriam-Webster and Wilson) or on the extent to which the wording before the colon "formally introduces" the sentence following the colon (New York Times and Warriner's).

Nor is the tendency to carve out exceptions to the general preference for lowercasing exclusive to U.S. style guides. For its part, Oxford makes distinctions that are no less nuanced than those in some U.S. guides when it recommends, on the one hand, "There is something I must say: you are standing on my toes" and, on the other, "Lords, ladies, and gentlemen: Allow me to present tonight's guest of honour."

Style questions resist categorical answers, since decisions about what style to use ultimately rest on personal or publishing house preference. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that most authorities in both Britain and the United States approve of lowercasing the first word following a colon and that, if anything, this preference has grown stronger in recent years.

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