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.