When to Capitalize after a Colon

Colon followed by a capital and lowercase letter "a"

I don’t like to dither over style choices. At the beginning of a sentence, it’s routine to start the next word with a capital letter. But when I type a colon within a sentence, I often have to stop and think about how to write the next word: whether to cap it isn’t always obvious.

The Chicago Way

As I not-so-sneakily demonstrated above, Chicago style lowercases the first word after a colon within a sentence, even if the words after the colon are themselves a grammatically complete sentence (see CMOS 6.63):

They even relied on a chronological analogy: just as the Year II had overshadowed 1789, so the October Revolution had eclipsed that of February. [full sentence after the colon]

The watch came with a choice of three bands: stainless steel, plastic, or leather. [sentence fragment after the colon]

As always, there are exceptions.

Exception 1. You already know this one. Words that are traditionally capitalized remain so, such as a proper name or a word that begins speech or dialogue (see CMOS 13.16):

Three candidates remain: Sasha, Wally, and Agnes. [proper name]

Brea announced the location of the meeting: “Outside the pub at 8.” [first word of dialogue]

Exception 2. This one is mainly observed by copyeditors who have read CMOS cover to cover. In Chicago style, the first word after a colon is capped if the colon introduces a series of two or more complete sentences, as in the first example below. Note the difference in the second example, where the colon introduces only one sentence and therefore follows the default lowercase style.

Here’s the scheme: We meet at Josephina’s. She gives us the cash. We give it to Granddad.

Here’s the scheme: we meet at Josephina’s. Jorge, do you have the password?

To a sensitive reader, there is a subtle difference. In the first example, the uppercase “We” is an attempt to signal the possibility that more elements to the scheme will follow. In the second example, the lowercase “we” encourages us to assume that the sentence “Here’s the scheme: we meet at Josephina’s” expresses the entire scheme. We meet at Josephina’s, period.

Like I said, subtle.

Creative License

Most writers are rightly oblivious to style choices at this level. Their job is to draft and craft their work, trusting their copyeditors and proofreaders to monitor and apply the consistency readers appreciate (whether they realize it or not).

But in the case of capping after colons, even copyeditors may feel that these distinctions and choices take too much thought for not enough payoff. Although the CMOS guidelines in section 6.63 are mostly intuitive, exception 2 isn’t. Implementing it requires studying the sentences following the colon to figure out whether they are a series related to the colon. It also may entail explaining to writers why some words after a colon are capped, and others are not.

Fortunately, some alternative schemes might be easier to use while also serving readers well.

Alternative 1. Always cap after a colon.

This is the easiest plan. It eliminates dithering, has rare exceptions,* and should require no explanation. It also looks good when the chunk after the colon is a grammatically complete sentence or series of sentences:

She inspects the code and laughs: No matter which way she turns it, the ciphers make sense.

The scheme was simple: Meet at Josephina’s. Find the cash. Give it to Granddad.

The watch came with a choice of three bands: Stainless steel, plastic, or leather.

The disadvantage—not insignificant in creative writing—is that it inevitably lends stress to an unimportant word in the middle of a sentence (e.g., “Stainless” in the third example above).

Alternative 2. Always lowercase after a colon; observe exception 1 for proper names, etc.

This plan reduces dithering, usually looks good, and is easy to explain. Users may frequently encounter exception 1, but such exceptions are obvious and intuitive.

The scheme was simple: meet at Josephina’s. Find the cash. Give it to Granddad.

The watch came with a choice of three bands: stainless steel, plastic, or leather.

The ballots contained only two names: Lucy and Mai. [exception for a proper name]

The judge called out the result: “A tie!” [exception for dialogue]

The disadvantage here, seen in the first example, is the opposite of the problem in alternative 1. That is, in a series of equally important statements introduced by the colon, the first statement almost disappears into the introducing sentence. It no longer “looks” like part of the series.

Alternative 3. Lowercase after a colon unless what follows is a grammatically complete sentence. Observe exception 1 for proper names etc.

The watch came with a choice of three bands: stainless steel, plastic, or leather.

She inspects the code and laughs: No matter which way she turns it, the ciphers make sense. [exception for a full sentence]

The scheme was simple: Meet at Josephina’s. Find the cash. Give it to Granddad. [exception for a full sentence]

The judge called out the result: “A tie!” [exception for dialogue]

I like this plan. It’s close to traditional Chicago style, but it eliminates the less intuitive exception 2, and it doesn’t have the disadvantages of alternatives 1 and 2. For an experienced copyeditor any exceptions will be intuitive and dither-free.

What This Isn’t About: Headlines

Just to clarify, this post isn’t about display type. I’m only talking about regular old sentences, a.k.a. running text, narrative, paragraphs, body text. In headlines or chapter titles or other display type, it’s normal to cap after a colon, even if the title or heading is in sentence case (see CMOS 8.158) and whether or not the part after the colon is a grammatically complete sentence.

Why Bother?

If it’s equally correct to uppercase or lowercase after a colon in most instances, why does the matter deserve attention at all? Editors have actual errors to attend to. Why not let this slide?

That’s an option. But the best reading experience results from a great many editing choices that are insignificant in themselves. Taken together, they add up to elegant and coherent writing. To make line-by-line work easy and efficient, copyeditors learn to handle minor and optional style matters by rote. Choosing a plan for dealing with what comes after a colon and sticking with it is a good example of how to do that.

* Exceptions might be brand names like iPhone and eBay or proper names like bell hooks.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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8 thoughts on “When to Capitalize after a Colon

  1. I have tended to follow the Chicago Way, but I wasn’t sure I understood all the situations it covers. Thanks for showing so clearly how much sense it makes. You got beyond the rules of copyediting and into the wisdom of copyediting. And then, you got even deeper into the wisdom of copyediting as a way to achieve “elegant and coherent writing.” Really enlightening column!!

  2. I’m a CMOS cover-to-cover gal–I like the Chicago way. But you forgot an exception: Is it not the case that a question following a colon gets capped? And your “scheme” example really is especially tricky. I’ve found that sometimes what follows the colon is not so much a series as a narrative–a string of events or connected ideas but not necessarily serial in nature, in which case, I’d stick to l.c. for the first idea after the colon. But the word “scheme” makes your example work.

    • Siobhan, you’re right—but to minimize the number of exceptions I decided a question could be considered a sentence. Or direct speech. CMOS is explicit about uppercasing a question after a comma (rather than a colon) at 6.42.

      And I agree! It’s often tricky having to divine whether the sentences after a colon are a series or not. A one-size-fits-all rule is always going to cause a problem at some point.

  3. As a young grade school student growing up in Peoria Il during the 50s and 60s, I loved all things grammatical. And I’ve always loved to read and write. Questions such as “do we capitalize after a colon” are relevant! Thank you Ms. Subversive Copy Editor for your clear and thorough response to this (and many other) question!

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