Submitted by Shay on February 6, 2013

Is there any defense of capitalizing after a semicolon?

Is there any defense of capitalizing after a semicolon? This reads well to me:

We do not sell tricycles; We sell velocipedes. 

Learn the difference.

Not capitalizing the first word of the second clause diminishes the perceived parallelism:

We do not sell tricycles; we sell velocipedes.

The store around the corner sells bicycles.

With a period between them, the first two clauses read like the premises of a syllogism:

We do not sell tricycles. We sell velocipedes.

Do we sell unicycles?

I will continue, of course, to pen as I please, but, in this instance, wonder if I can confidently publish as I please.

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Tome, as a Brit, capitals after a colon are barbarous.

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That's a pretty big convention you want to overturn there. The only way you'd get it published is to self-publish, I'd imagine. But I don't really see your problem: when we see a semi-colon linking two clauses, we expect them to have a strong link anyway, so why does the small letter, which we also expect to see, weaken that?

One thing to bear in mind is that you'll stop the flow of your readers as they wonder what the hell's going on. And you'll probably piss a lot of people off. Readers are unlikely to see your clever ploy and just think you're ignorant. Dangling modifiers would have nothing on this. If you're as good a writer as E.E.Cummings you might be able to pull it off. If not, better to stick with the conventions.

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Unfortunately, Will, capitalizing after a colon is creeping into British publishing. The reason may be transatlantic deals and the need for standardized conventions. The Americans, as the senior partners, tend to have the last word.

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Hi Skeeter. I doubt that it has anything to do with the Americans; they are a lot stricter on so-called "correct" semicolon use, and in fact punctuation in general, than we are. In an overbearing review of Lynne Truss's Eats Leaves and Shoots in the New Yorker, the reviewer wrote - "An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness."

I think we go more by gut feeling, Americans more by established rules.

Mind you, when the New York subway published a poster with a semicolon being used correctly, it was thought to be such a rare occurrence that it was deemed worthy of an op-ed in the New York Times. And when a serial killer left notes for the police that included correctly used semicolons, police assumed that the killer must be a journalist, as nobody else would know how to use them.

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Senior moment I'm afraid, Will. I was referring to colons, not semi-colons. After colons, capitalization is certainly creeping in.

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Sorry Skeeter, I didn't read your comments very well. I see you've been talking about colons all along. But as the question was about semicolons I sort of assumed ... :):)

@shay - I don't know why you think a full stop (period) makes them look like a syllogism - all the dictionary examples of syllogism I can find also use semicolons:

All humans must die; I am a human; therefore I must die.
All dogs are animals; all animals have four legs; therefore all dogs have four legs.
Some temples are in ruins; all ruins are fascinating; so some temples are fascinating.

So if anything, it's surely the other way round.

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@Skeeter. Perhaps you're right. Here's a capital after a comma, in the New York Times, of all places:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/technology/pe...

And in the print edition:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=4466#co...

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Will, I think that's just standard practice for titles in the US. I was taught that any word that isn't an article, conjunction, or preposition should be capitalized in a title. I would have written it exactly the same way.

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@JohnN - Yes, you're absolutely right, as I found out later when I commented on that LL post. All very embarrassing! I am of course used to seeing (and using) this convention you mention in film and book titles, but these rarely involve punctuation.

British newspapers don't appear to use this convention in headlines or article titles and so I was a bit knocked off-course when I saw it. It's certainly the practice for the NYT and the Wall Street Journal, but not, for some reason, the Washington Post, which follows the same conventions, as far as I can see, as British newspapers.

A couple of random examples from today's NYT:

In Italy, Illusion Is the Only Reality
Before Cyprus Election, Gloom and Voter Apathy

Silly me! Although I still find it looks strange. But then I wondered about a certain controversial book on punctuation, and of course it uses the same convention: Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

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According to my <i>Manual of Style</i> (11th edition, 1949):

"Capitalize the first word after a colon only when introducing a complete passage or sentence having independent meaning..."

But, one does capitalize in that case.

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Bucky, that rule doesn't obtain in British English. It looks a bit bizarre to us.

"Ten minutes later his secretary calls back: We've got face time with the president, guy named Walter Helfgott."

This line from an American thriller is, I suppose, standard in American English but not over here.

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