Is the colon a multiplexer?

by Mark L. Levinson


Colons are like piercings.  Back in the day, they had their strictly prescribed positions and you seldom saw them anywhere else.  Now people insert them all over the place.

A couple of weeks ago on the Techshoret list, Shmuel Wolfson recommended as a resource for writers.  I thought I’d see what the folks over there at Purdue have to say about the colon.

Purdue recommends a colon “after a complete statement in order to introduce one or more directly related ideas, such as a series of directions, a list, or a quotation or other comment illustrating or explaining the statement.”  The key word there is “complete.” 

“Grishkin is nice” is a complete statement, for example.  T.S. Eliot wrote, “Grishkin is nice:  her Russian eye is underlined for emphasis.”  The second statement is an elaboration following a first complete statement. 

Technical writing is full of colons that follow incomplete statements.  Many writers evidently think a sentence like “Supported types are bowtie, string tie, and four-in-hand” looks somehow more authoritative when it’s “Supported types are:  bowtie, string tie, and four-in-hand.”

Someone popularized the idea that a colon is a multiplexer, splitting the flow of the sentence so that a single beginning connects to each of a series of endings.  Where did the idea come from?

I don’t blame the technical writers.  I’m a technical writer myself.  I blame the lawyers.

It’s the lawyers who have always started everything with “Whereas” followed by a colon and a list.  And then instead of “Therefore be it resolved as follows,” the hasty lawyer will write “Therefore be it resolved that” and another colon and another list.  The technical writers are just following a bad precedent when they fail to complete the statement that introduces the list.

Of course you can always make a bad precedent worse.  Given the questionable premise that the colon is a multiplexer, you can start a sentence, break it with a colon, and then list a number of endings that don’t even continue the same sentence.  “Some of the advantages of TiePlumb are: Ensures dignified appearance, Saves time, Reduces fabric fatigue.”

Many though the grotesque examples may be — the other day I even saw “the” followed by a colon and a series of nouns — an underlying question can’t be escaped in a column called The Why of Style, and the question is why the use of the colon as a multiplexer is a bad idea in the first place.  “TiePlumb is the most efficient way to:  Choose from your necktie collection, Straighten your necktie, Archive your upper outfit.”  What’s wrong with that?  So Purdue doesn’t endorse it.  So none of a dozen grammar books endorses it.  So what?  Vocabulary changes, grammar changes, doesn’t punctuation change as well?

Yes, and the answer — just as for many other issues of usage — is that though many readers may not care, others might.  The colon as multiplexer, without a complete statement before it, does not lead inevitably to awkwardness or misunderstanding, the way some errors do.  But because it doesn’t have the endorsement of traditional educators, it may irritate some readers.  It’s up to you to decide whether or not to cater to that specific irritable public.

I personally find the practice dis:  tracting, concerting, and turbing.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.