Colonoscopy: It’s Time to Check Your Colons

July 13, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 44 5 min read


“It is sad to think people are no longer learning how to use the colon…” muses grammarian Lynne Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves, “not least because, in this supreme QWERTY keyboard era, the little finger of the human right hand, deprived of its traditional function, may eventually dwindle and drop off from disuse.”

Wherever you are, Ms. Truss, you may smile.

Sampling a single week in April from the New York Times, colon use appears both rampant and revisionary.

As Thomas Friedman says, “You’ve heard that saying: As General Motors goes, so goes America.”

Or Nicholas D. Kristof, who requests, “Note that terminology: ‘painted dogs.’”

And last, “I was puzzling over that one when it hit me: As a Catholic woman, I was doing the same thing.” Here it’s Maureen Dowd.

Again, these citations are from a single week in April. They aren’t anomalous. Nor do they reflect a one-off, back-office editorial decision at The New York Times.

Here at The Millions, for example, just try Emily St. John’s April 15 piece, “The Trojan Horse Problem: Thoughts on Structure“. Excluding the title, you’ll find eight colons–one for every 160 words.

Colons, once on life support, are proliferating.


Because these aren’t Ms. Truss’s colons. The colons of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, are brittle, dusty, soporific. “Prepare yourself,” they yawn, “that I may shortly provide you a list.” To actually call these colons by name (syntactical-deductive, appositive, etc.) is to virtually lose consciousness. So bear with me for a moment as we first rechristen our colons.


1. The lister: “The meal requires three ingredients: milk, eggs, and flour.”

2. The talker: “He shouted at the sky: ‘I’m retired!’”

3. The natural extension: “She saw him for what he was: a prodigy.”

4. The juxtaposer: “His face was red: the guests were staring.”

Most of us stop with number 1. At the other end of the spectrum is number 4, the juxtaposer, which has been variously replaced by periods (correctly), commas (incorrectly), dashes (who knows?), and semicolons (for the writing class or the bored).

But, as seen above, colons 2 and 3 are experiencing a renaissance. Their use is even verging on the decadent. (Doubters, try Charles M. Blow’sA Mighty Pale Tea” or Kristof’s “A Church Mary Can Love,” also from that same week in April.)

Nor does it stop there.

I would like to hypothesize that a new form of colon has emerged. From the democratic bowels of the Internet, an unknown pair of beady black eyes is staring out at us.

It’s colon number 5.

At The New York Times, Roger Cohen certainly uses it. “Not history but the future: Germany, when I lived there in the late 1990s….” Or here, when he writes, “On Turkey, for example: Barack tells me Turkey is Europe’s Islamic bridge.”

Also a fan is Paul Krugman. “Some background: we used to have a workable system for avoiding financial crises….” Or again, adding, “And one more thing: employment-based health insurance….”

A new colon is on the march. For now let’s call it the “jumper colon”.

For grammarians, it’s a dependent clause + colon + just about anything, incorporating any and all elements of the other four colons, yet differing crucially in that its pre-colon segment is always a dependent clause.


For everyone else: its usefulness lies in that it lifts you up and into a sentence you never thought you’d be reading by giving you a compact little nugget of information prior to the colon and leaving you on the hook for whatever comes thereafter, often rambling on until the reader has exhausted his/her theoretical lung capacity and can continue to read no longer.


See how fast that goes? The jumper colon is a paragraphical Red Bull, a rocket-launch of a punctuator, the Usain Bolt of literature. It’s punchy as hell. To believers of short first sentences–Hemingway?–it couldn’t get any better. To believers of long-winded sentences that leave you gasping and slightly confused–Faulkner?–it also couldn’t get any better. By itself this colon is neither a period nor a non-period… or rather it is a period and it is also a non-period. You choose.

The best use of a jumper colon (and both Cohen and Krugman appear to agree) is to wedge it in at the very beginning of a paragraph, where it lends a little springboard action to that paragraph-to-paragraph waterfall effect.

As Mr. Kristof declares, “Memo to Mr. Obama: When a man who has been charged with crimes against humanity tells the world that America is in his pocket….”

Now let’s turn to the “Curiosities” page here at The Millions.

“News for young readers and their parents: Meet the charming and irrepressible….”

“For those who just can’t get enough of Carrie Bradshaw, Candace Bushnell’s latest: The Carrie Diaries.”


These aren’t spot-picks, but were rather taken from that same week in April as every example above.

Take a look around. Slate, The New Republic, The Huffington Post,, The Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Vogue, The New Yorker, WIRED–all use jumper colons. Though not yet in the The AP Stylebook, they have slipped unnoticed into the vaunted realm of AP journalism.

Though jumper colons certainly predated those discussed here, those were rule-benders, grammatical aberrations. Today, jumpers are practically law.

So why is our writing suddenly peppered with colons? And where on earth did they come from?

Well, because the Internet is a place where things tend to go “viral.” Videos, songs, funny pictures of cats, forwarded emails, bad jokes–any information that can be transmitted digitally has the potential to snowball.

So, too, with words and acronyms. Have you ever told a friend you’d BRB? Ever LOL’d at a “FAIL”? If not, your child probably has. These words and clusters didn’t  exist in the early nineties, yet for the “text gen” they’re common currency. And, IMHO, they’re also tied to colons.

Ms. Truss, herself, held the clue to this development.

A professed loather of emoticons, she worried they were indicative of our staggering ignorance of appropriate colon usage in standard English. “What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for?” she feigns. “Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a set of eyes.”

Yet isn’t it fair to wonder if our various smileys :), frowns :(, kisses :*, et al. haven’t warmed up that long-disused key, prepared it for the trickle-up effect into blogs and real-time journalism? Or whether compression typing (Twitter, texting) hasn’t set the stage for the dependent-clause communication that requires a jumper colon?

It’s Twitter and texting that deserve a second glance.

For it has been in response to imposed word-caps–140 characters for Twitter, 160 for texting–that the “text gen” has changed its writing style. To those texters/Twitterers out there, how many times have you performed ad hoc surgery on a message to make it “fit”? The logic game played daily is one of content v. concision.

To that end, rules be damned, a new punctuator has been born.

My plan for today:

Totally random thought:

Best meal ever:

That’s the jumper colon. Check out Twitter, Facebook, or Myspace and you’ll find one.

Last night: soooo crazy!

Punctuation can go viral. Syntax is a meme.

And, as evidenced in The New York Times and elsewhere, the punctuation push has indeed gone upward. In comments, threads, emails, blogs, newspapers, and magazines, compelling jumpers abound.

For, as it turns out, our right-hand pinkie isn’t dying. It is in fact more dexterous than ever.

With the right computing capacity, one might even be able to divide word-count by colons for the entire World Wide Web and chart their proliferation over time. If anyone has a Cray supercomputer lying around, please email me.

Better yet, go write an email. See if you can avoid the allure of the jumper colon.

Theory: you can’t.

Image credit: Leo Reynolds

writes and teaches English in Germany. He’s written a comic mystery and hopes you’ll someday read it. Feel free to email him here.


  1. I’m a fan of colons. And semi-colons. I use them both too frequently. One of my editorial notes for my second novel was “go through the text, and try to remove as many semi-colons as you possibly can.”

  2. Goodness, the ignorance absolutely drips from the author’s pen!

    Type 4 is just plain wrong: incorrect; not good usage.

    Types 2,3, and 5 are the same thing – and old as the hills: the right hand part explains the left hand part.

    You’re a reporter; you should know better. Go and find an English teacher. Now.

  3. I’d have to agree with @shadowfirebird above, although not quite as bluntly. The article does seem to make more of the issue than there really is. And #4 definitely IS wrong; please don’t tempt people to write like that!

    I love Ms. Truss’s work, but I’d have to disagree about the use of colons. They are thriving in the wild wherever text is not dumbed-down for the general public by overly enthusiastic editors.

  4. Shadowfirebird, what do you have against coordinating conjunctions? Semicolons, like exclamation marks, should be saved for special occasions. I think you may soon run out of both. Type 4 may not be correct, but it is very trendy right now. I’ve seen quite a few Type 4s sprinkled throughout recent short stories.

  5. ShadowFireBird, Maria, and Veronica: The author did not make up the first four types of colons he described. He simply renamed them. His type number four is known as the appositive colon, and it is technically correct. It is simply out of fashion, and just not done anymore.
    This new type of colon is in fashion, although it is technically incorrect. The rule for colons has always been that the preceding statement must be an independent clause.
    English is a living, evolving language. Forsooth, this is cool. I like this new jumper colon. I’m pretty sure I’ve already used it. Also, I think I’m going to try to bring back the appositive colon. The appositive colon is bringing back the old school: the jumper colon is rocking the new school.

  6. Where is the appositive in #4? It would be an example of an appositive colon if it read: “His face was red: the color of a beet.” The sentence as written requires a semicolon.

  7. So is the “jumper colon” the new dash? Couldn’t your third and fifth colon types be replaced by a dash? Or are dashes now out of style?
    Don’t get me started on the second and fourth types you think you’ve identified. Number two should use a comma, and as others have pointed out, number four requires a semicolon.

  8. It seems enough of you have covered all angles on this colon debate: left little doubt. That, after all, is what a colonscopy should do: take a close-up, illuminated look for unwanted intruders, blemishes in the normal workings; reality TV for text.
    Now, if someone could just help me understand how “Did you know?” came into favor…

  9. I don’t know if number 4 could be a semicolon. If the guests are staring at his red face (because it was red), then yes. But if both happen because of something else (like he just said something embarrassing), then I don’t think so. The clauses could be switched and the sentence still makes sense, which I think usually means they aren’t related enough to merit a semicolon.

  10. I think that increasing use of the “jumper colon” might be related to the abundance of forms in the web; people have become accustomed to labels in front of information. Increasing familiarity with slide shows might also have something to do with it. (Disclaimer: I’m not a native English speaker.)

  11. Type 4 needs to be a semicolon, a period, or anything else really, but not a colon. The other 4 types are fine, and related: they tell you that something important is coming. The first part only serves to introduce the second part, be it a quote, a lost of ingredients, a description, or even a complete paragraph. Type 4, on the other hand, at least in this example, uses the colon to separate two equal parts. The semicolon is far more appropriate for that. Or a period. Or, if you really don’t know, dashes. Even a comma feels more appropriate than a colon.

    If this truly was a common, valid, grammatically correct way to use the colon, then it needs to go. Because it’s stupid and inconsistent.

  12. I know the article is about an increase in abundance rather than necessarily a new phenomenon, but Kurt Vonnegut often used the colon in this way, usually at the beginning of a paragraph. Sometimes he’d put the first clause in a paragraph all on its own, with the part after the colon continuing in the next paragraph. For example (both from Sirens of Titan, written in 1959):

    “The moral: money, position, health, handsomeness and talent aren’t everything.”

    “An illustrative anecdote about Unk:
    One time, when Unk’s platoon was taking a shower, …”

    I wonder if anyone can think of an older example of this usage. It’d be interesting to see how far back it can be traced.

  13. First, the “jumper colon” is nothing new. I used one in first sentence of the second paragraph of my M. A. thesis in 1971, and I see from earlier posts that it was already established then. Then, neither type 2 nor type 4 sits well with me, although the problem may lie in the specific examples. Colons have long been used to join two sentences when the second explains, amplifies, or provides an example of the first, but those don’t. In sentence 2, what’s wrong with the usual mark to introduce a quotation, the comma? In sentence 4, if the two clauses were reversed, the colon might be appropriate if the reason everyone was staring at that man was that his face was red. If, on the other hand, his face was red because everyone was staring at him, there are ways to make the relationship between those two facts clearer than the colon does.

  14. Loved this article. I have an addition to your explanation of the jumper colon: it acts like the title or subject line for whatever comes next, whether it’s a paragraph, text message, tweet, or just the rest of the sentence. Since e-mail was our first big mass-use, we all got used to that subject line, and now we’re incorporating it into all forms of typed communication. I love it!

  15. Interesting. I’m a speech writer and a copy editor. I also write for a prominent federal government website.

    I find colons — and semi-colons, and ellipses and em dashes — appearing more often in my casual writing than they did before I was active on the Internet; I suppose the more conversational tone of most Internet writing leads me that way. That is: When I type things out here on the Internet, I tend to emulate the hesitant, incomplete syntax of normal oral speech… you know?

    Now I unleash an Internet cliché (or is it a trope? Whatever): “Did you see what I just did there?” Yep, I used semi- and full colons together with ellispes and em dashes, all in the same paragraph. Clever me.

    When I’m not writing for or on the Internet I punctuate quite differently. I prefer full stops between thoughts and assertions. I go back and replace those uncommitted half-stops with periods. I remove needless conjunctions. It’s that Hemingway infleunce, I suppose.

    (See? I did it again.)

  16. Rule 1 of academic-journal titles: title must contain colon.

    (two in one title seem to be fine, BTW)

  17. What a refreshing read! I tend to prefer dashes over colons, but this article has given me a new look at those two little dots. My reactions include: delight, curiosity, and an eagerness to colonize the world!

  18. I find the jumper colon intriguing, not inherently offensive, and certainly not new, but I must point out that your formula is inaccurate. The word group preceding the colon in all of your examples is not a dependent (a.k.a. subordinate) clause, as you claim. A clause requires a subject and a verb, and a dependent clause requires a subordinating word (various parts of speech can fill the role) before the subject/verb pair. “Not history but the future,” “Some background,” “And one more thing”–none of these contain a subject/verb pair, so none of them are dependent clauses.

  19. “The overly rigid grammarians and their stiff-necked minions tend to suck the joy out writing.”

    Was this comment, at the ass end of this beautifully bodied article, my favorite only cuz it was so wrong, or so write?

    How does a grammarian, whether or not overly rigid, suck? Suck Joy? Suck joy Out?

    I hate the misuse of semicolons. (It’s so much more rampant than colon abuse.) I corrected these things for a while, and i hated myself for correcting them, because i felt like an ass;hole every single time, and then I shifted away from my job as writing and editing prose.

    Now I am a homeless and pennyless visionary. Although I know how to use words and punctuation, I don’t. I think my thoughts at people, with commas, hyphens and points perfectly placed, and they jeer at me.

    On the outside, they are write, however, in their rash derision, they forget about the splicing of the comma.

    It should have been: “On the outside, they are write; however, in their rash derision, they forget about the splicing of the comma.”

    So, both inside and out, no Grammarian can sick the joy out of me.

    Because I am write.

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