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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter IV. Punctuation

THE COLON



IT was said in the general remarks at the beginning of this chapter that the systematic use of the colon as one of the series (,), (;), (:), (.), had died out with the decay of formal periods. Many people continue to use it, but few, if we can trust our observation, with any nice regard to its value. Some think it a prettier or more impressive stop than the semicolon, and use it instead of that; some like variety, and use the two indifferently, or resort to one when they are tired of the other. As the abandonment of periodic arrangement really makes the colon useless, it would be well (though of course any one who still writes in formal periods should retain his rights over it) if ordinary writers would give it up altogether except in the special uses, independent of its quantitative value, to which it is being more and more applied by common consent. These are (1) between two sentences that are in clear antithesis, but not connected by an adversative conjunction; (2) introducing a short quotation; (3) introducing a list; (4) introducing a sentence that comes as fulfilment of a promise expressed or implied in the previous sentence; (5) introducing an explanation or proof that is not connected with the previous sentence by for or the like. Examples are:

  1. Man proposes: God disposes.
  2. Always remember the ancient maxim: Know thyself.—B.
  3. Chief rivers: Thames, Severn, Humber...
  4. Some things we can, and others we cannot do: we can walk, but we cannot fly.—Bigelow.
  5. Rebuke thy son in private: public rebuke hardens the heart.—B.


In the following clear case of antithesis a colon would have been more according to modern usage than the semicolon.

As apart from our requirements Mr. Arnold-Forster's schemes have many merits; in relation to them they have very few.—Times.


It now only remains, before leaving actual stops for the dash, hyphen, quotation mark, and bracket, to comment on a few stray cases of ambiguity, false scent, and ill-judged stopping. We have not hunted up, and shall not manufacture, any of the patent absurdities that are amusing but unprofitable. The sort of ambiguity that most needs guarding against is that which allows a sleepy reader to take the words wrong when the omission or insertion of a stop would have saved him.

The chief agitators of the League, who have—not unnaturally considering the favours showered upon them in the past—a high sense of their own importance...—Times.


With no comma after unnaturally the first thought is that the agitators not unnaturally consider; second thoughts put it right; but second thoughts should never be expected from a reader.

Simultaneously extensive reclamation of land and harbour improvements are in progress at Chemulpo and Fusan.—Times.


With no comma after the first word, the sleepy reader is set wondering what simultaneously extensive means, and whether it is journalese for equally extensive.

But Anne and I did, for we had played there all our lives—at least, all the years we had spent together and the rest do not count in the story. When Anne and I came together we began to live.—Crockett.


A comma after together would save us from adding the two sets of years to each other. In the next piece, on the other hand, the uncomfortable comma after gold is apparently meant to warn us quite unnecessarily that here and there belongs to the verb.

Flecks of straw-coloured gold, here and there lay upon it, where the sunshine touched the bent of last year.—Crockett.

After that, having once fallen off from their course, they at length succeeded in crossing the Aegean, and beating up in the teeth of the Etesian winds, only yesterday, seventy days out from Egypt, put in at the Piraeus.—S. T. Irwin.


The omission of the comma between and and beating would ordinarily be quite legitimate. Here, it puts us off on a false scent, because it allows beating to seem parallel with crossing and object to succeeded in; we have to go back again when we get to the end, and work it out.

The French demurring to the conditions which the English commander offered, again commenced the action.—B.


The want of a comma between French and demurring makes us assume an absolute construction and expect another subject, of which we are disappointed.

The next two pairs of examples illustrate the effect of mere accidental position on stopping. This is one of the numberless small disturbing elements that make cast-iron rules impossible in punctuation.

I must leave you to discover what the answer is.
What the answer is, I must leave you to discover.


That is, a substantival clause out of its place is generally allowed the comma that all but the straitest sect of punctuators would refuse it in its place.

In the present dispute, therefore, the local politicians have had to choose between defence of the principle of authority and espousing the cause of the local police.—Times.

Of its forty-four commissioners however few actually took any part in its proceedings; and the powers of the Commission...—J. R. Green.


The half adverbs half conjunctions of which therefore and however are instances occupy usually the second place in the sentence. When there, it is of little importance whether they are stopped or not, though we have indicated our preference for no stops. But when it happens that they come later (or earlier), the commas are generally wanted. Therefore in the first of these sentences would be as uncomfortable if stripped as however actually is in the second.

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