Friday, November 30, 2012

Colon discomfort

Image from
Yes, colon discomfort. But you’d be wrong to think that my recent long-haul flight back to New Zealand – with its dubious chicken or beef options – was the cause. We’re talking pure punctuation here.

As an English teacher and wannabe writer, I pride myself on my mastery of punctuation. I am intimately acquainted with the semicolon. I grasp the awesome power of starting a new paragraph. I fell in love with – and married – a man who knew how to talk to me about apostrophes. I quietly scorn writers with idiosyncratic capitalization and those who can’t punctuate the difference between a defining and a non-defining relative clause. Weren’t they paying attention in high school?

Yet I’ve been able to move on from high school too. I’ve long dropped the double space after a period taught to me in tenth-grade typing class, a vestige – as I am – from the typewriter days. I’ve kept up with more efficient changes in punctuation by dropping the unnecessary comma after “and” when listing names, countries and grocery items – this last phrase being an example.

OK, so I do indulge in an overuse of hyphens – they’re just so beautiful – but otherwise, I’m perfect.

But my punctuation confidence was shattered during a recent trip back to Washington, D.C., my hometown. It seems that in my absence they’d done something to the colon. I first noticed it months earlier in National Geographic, that there were instances where a capital letter followed a colon. Here’s a recent example:

“Nothing works here, Eduardo would cry, pounding the steering wheel of whatever car he’d hustled on loan for the day: The economic model is broken, state employees survive on their tiny salaries only by stealing from the jobsite…” (Gorney, Cynthia. Cuba’s New Now. National Geographic Nov 2012.)

The capital letter in “The” suggests the beginning a new sentence. If you’re going to start a new sentence, a separate idea, then why use a colon at all? Forgive me, but the colon I know would never dare infringe upon the sheer power of the full, independent sentence: instead it would keep to its humble yet immeasurably significant role of introducing or leading to the next idea, which is often a result or an explanation. For example:

“The landslide destroyed the town: thousands left in the aftermath.” (result)

“I’m exhausted: I stayed up all night cleaning cat pee off my mattress.” (explanation)

So what was National Geographic doing undermining the subtle role of the colon? As a lifelong reader of the magazine, I felt betrayed. With such a worldwide reputation, I thought, millions will copy their editors’ tainted use of the colon. Shouldn’t they be more responsible? How can they work for the protection of the planet but not defend the colon? Will the colon someday be extinct?

When I landed in the States this September, I was horrified to see the virus had already spread, so much so that it seemed National Geographical might not have been the perpetrator but simply another casualty. There was The Smithsonian…The New Yorker! Everywhere I looked, there was colon abuse. But my horror soon turned to discomfort.

Was it them or was it me? Had I missed a modern punctuation trend? Despite my efforts, have I now become as old-fashioned as the generation of double spacers and comma overkillers?