Sunday, February 17, 2008

Colons on parade: Meet your new best friend

What in the world is going on with colons? I’ll bet that you have avoided thinking about colons — as punctuation, that is — most of your adult life. Maybe most of your pre-adult life, as well. Not anymore. Colons are in, way in.

“I never know the difference between colons and semicolons,” people tell me, “so I avoid using either.” That’s OK. Writing around confusing punctuation and phrasing is a great exercise.

(By the way, let me spell out the purpose of this lil’ column I’m allowed to write, the one that now has you reading about colons, of all things. It’s simple: My goal is to get you to enjoy an awareness of language. That’s all. Just enjoy the benefits of paying attention to what you say and write. If I’m lucky, I’ll also paste a wee smile on your face along the way.)

Now, about those frisky colons. These days they’re everywhere (including 13 in this column). I’m not complaining (surprise!), just noting. For a long time, if you needed a colon you’d go to the title of a professor’s writing. Simply turn to any college or university website, find a professor and look at her/his publications/presentations. You’ll find enough colons to last a lifetime. Look here — “Integrating Locomotor Energetics, Mechanics and Gaits: Insights and Key Directions at the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology.” Can you find the colon?

What’s amazing to me is how those little bitty things, one dot lined up over another, now permeate movie titles. The current movie listings boast seven movie titles with colons, right here in our fair city. They include National Treasure: Book of Secrets; Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep.

Isn’t that interesting? And just to illustrate colons and semicolons working together happily, look at the list of movie titles again to see how semicolons separate the items. (Reminds me of the old joke: “I’m not yet 50 years old, so my doctor said I need to have only a semicolonsocopy.”)

I won’t spell out all the ways colons are used appropriately (mainly to introduce a list, a definition or a direct quote). My purpose is merely to share the observation that a punctuation mark is in vogue. Maybe colons will become less scary through familiarity.

Let’s look briefly at that punch line again: “I need to have only a semicolonoscopy.” The placement of the word “only” within a sentence is important to several people who have written to me. It began with Reader Leila, who wrote from the mountains of North Carolina in May 2006 (here comes a colon; enjoy): “LOVE the column. Please do one on the misuse of ‘only.’ As in, ‘The President only asked Congress for a ba-zillion dollars.’ Is that — only the President? Or — asked only the Congress? Or — only asked but didn't demand? Or — asked for only a bazillion dollars? Placing ‘only’ in the correct position would give one of my pet peeves a rest!”

Others emailed about the same problem. Then, in my last column, I wrote this: “… and so far the claims have only been about my uses of language that would be … ill advised for formal writing.” Uh-oh. Look at the “only” in that sentence. I committed one of the “only” sins.

Reader Raymond was on it, emailing me this: “The restriction of ‘only’ should be closest to the subject of restriction. … The restrictor word should be as close as possible to whatever is being restricted. I would prefer, ‘And so far the claims have been about ONLY my uses …’ Why split a verb (‘have been’) when better comprehension is posited upon ONLY being closest to its object of restriction?”

Better comprehension; can’t argue with that, Raymond. So I agree, and I wonder: Does Raymond know Leila?

One more note about readers. I asked to hear from readers who are under the age of 30, and some kindly responded. Not everyone gave an age, but of those who did, the two youngest were 14-year-old Kelli and “almost 14” Stephanie. All of them professed a love for language, with one proclaiming thus: “Of course, I say the word ‘like’ about every five seconds and stuff, but as far as just incorrect grammar, I try to avoid it.”

If only everyone would.