I couldn’t help but to think: “Is this really what the meaning of success has become?” and to make matters even worse, this idea was just spread to the thousands of viewers.

Is the colon correct? I am unsure about using a colon versus a comma.

closed as not a real question by John Lawler, Hellion, James Waldby - jwpat7, Robusto, MetaEd Dec 17 '12 at 3:54

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    You shouldn't be worrying about punctuation decisions until you get the grammar and lexical decisions made correctly. For instance, the idiom is couldn't help but think (no to); and it's thousands of viewers (no the). And why use passive causative was spread when intransitive spread works all by itself? Punctuation is frosting; bake the cake before you frost it. – John Lawler Dec 16 '12 at 18:46
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    @John: I think the idiom is actually I couldn't but think or I couldn't help thinking. – TimLymington Dec 16 '12 at 18:49
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    To answer your actual question, the colon is fine. @John: was spread and spread have slightly different connotations here, and you'd have to decide from context (which we don't have) which is better. – Peter Shor Dec 16 '12 at 18:57
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    @TimLymington. Couldn’t help but is certainly found, as in this OED citation from 1999: ‘I didn't understand half of what was going on, but I couldn't help but notice that the procedure was incredibly baroque’. – Barrie England Dec 16 '12 at 18:59
  • @TimLymington: The OP's idiom had help and an infinitive with to. The to is incorrect in all these idioms: I couldn't but to think; I couldn't help but to notice; I couldn't help to noticing. – John Lawler Dec 16 '12 at 19:36

I say that the colon is not at all necessary, as the quoted phrase is simply the object of the sentence particle before it; a comma is a much more natural pause there. My version would be:

I couldn't help but think, "Is this really what the meaning of success has become?" And to make matters even worse, the idea was just spread to thousands of viewers.

The "make matters worse" part needs to be its own sentence because it's not part of what you "couldn't help but" do.

Also as pointed out by @John Lawler, you can see that I've used "couldn't help but think" without the to and "thousands of viewers" without "the".

I think that "was spread" is appropriate, because all we know at this point is that the idea has been sent out; we don't know if it was then taken in by the people to whom it was broadcast, which would be necessary for "spread".

  • -1 for last paragraph – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 17 '12 at 0:36
  • @jwpat7, You don't think there's a difference between "the idea spread to thousands of people" and "the idea was spread to thousands of people"? It seems quite clear to me. – Hellion Dec 17 '12 at 5:37
  • You are probably right. – James Waldby - jwpat7 Dec 17 '12 at 5:40

If the first clause is independent, you should use a colon. If, as in your example, then either a colon or a comma is grammatically correct.

Stylistically, the colon emphasizes the quotation somewhat more than the comma.

Lists should be preceded by a colon. I have heard (sorry, I don't remember where) a rule of thumb that one should use a comma before shorter quotations (10 words or less), a colon before longer quotations.

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    Just because I always seek to get better, I'd love whoever downvoted my answer to let me know why! – Chris Jan 19 '14 at 4:50

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