There’s no shortage of examples of missing or misplaced punctuation causing confusion. When used properly, most punctuation should add clarity. But the colon has the remarkable ability to add ambiguity—sometimes hilariously—even when correctly used:
Sentence construction is really important. pic.twitter.com/WoJxCrMbD0
— Imran Garda (@ImranGarda) January 4, 2017
I dunno, he’s just one bloke, I reckon we could take him. pic.twitter.com/LVPYU6bqiL
— Phil Fersht (@pfersht) July 19, 2015
This problem occurs because the colon performs different rhetorical functions in different genres:
- In letters, a colon after the salutation calls the recipient’s attention:
- In plays and screenplays, colons tell you who’s speaking:
- In headlines, sometimes the source of the quote comes after the colon:
- Colons separate title and subtitle, the latter usually an explanation or elaboration on the former:
In Hayes’s book First Crossing: Alexander Mackenzie, His Expedition Across North America, and the Opening of the Continent…
- In running text, colons can also signal elaborations—often emphatic ones. Standard usage dictates that what comes before the colon should be an independent clause:
Colons have other uses—before lists, in ratios, and so on—but the five functions mentioned here, especially when they’re haphazardly mixed, are responsible for unintended interpretations. The problem is most pronounced in headlines, tweets, and wherever space is at a premium (because a colon is a space-saving way to signal a quotation), and it occurs most often when one side of the colon refers to a person or organization.
Sometimes it’s not clear whether a colon is serving function 2 or 4:
Shirley Faulkner: the bane of my existence
Is Shirley Faulkner the bane of the writer’s existence? Is Shirley Faulkner talking about the bane of her existence?
Adding quotation marks eliminates one possibility but introduces another:
Shirley Faulkner: “the bane of my existence”
Shirley Faulkner is probably talking here, but maybe the writer is quoting someone else talking about Shirley Faulkner.
Because of function 3, putting the name after the colon is also ambiguous:
At a political cross-roads: Rajeev Mehta
Rajeev Mehta could be at a political cross-roads himself, or he could be talking about something at a political cross-roads.
Using the second person, including the imperative, after a colon can lead to confusion between functions 1 and 2:
Canada Revenue Agency: Get your affairs in order
Is the writer imploring the Canada Revenue Agency to get its affairs in order, or is the Canada Revenue Agency talking to us? In this instance, quotation marks would strongly signal that the person or organization before the colon is doing the talking, but there’s still a possibility that the writer may be quoting someone else, and adding quotation marks is only appropriate for direct quotes. If the quote is indirect, you’re stuck with the problem.
I could find surprisingly little written about this issue, even in articles about ambiguity due to headlinese, and most newspaper style guides address correct uses of colons only in running text. What should editors do?
1. Recognize the possibility for ambiguity
Put searching for colons on your personal editorial checklist. (They shouldn’t be that common outside of references, so this process should be short.) Evaluate each instance for ambiguity.
2. Don’t rely on context
Usually the meaning becomes clear if readers continue on to the main body of the article or click through on a tweet, but a lot of people read only the headline or tweet. Don’t just leave a potential ambiguity assuming people will read on and figure it out.
3. Use speech tags
If someone is being quoted, make that clear by using a speech tag like “says.” It takes up a few more characters, but it eliminates the ambiguity. (And bear in mind that, out of habit, we sometimes use headlinese even in online publications or other situations when space isn’t an issue.)
4. Use interjections or saluations
If you’re calling a person’s attention, starting with “dear,” “hey,” “to,” or something similar can help.
5. Be consistent
Once you’ve settled on one function for the colon in your publication, stick to it. Using colons in the same style for different rhetorical functions in the same document will cause enormous confusion.
Em dashes serve a couple of the same functions as colons, particularly setting off a speaker (though usually with a line break or at least a space) and elaborating or explaining, so be aware that dashes can lead to ambiguity as well, although you can assign different rhetorical functions to each and use them consistently in the same document together.