Strunk and White, Colons, and the Web

Lately my bedtime reading of choice is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Perhaps this sounds a bit peculiar to you. If so, let me point out that one of its many fine qualities is a certain soporific je-ne-quois. Moreover, one could do worse than to dream about sentence fragments.

In any event, to my surprise this exceedingly brief book, which picks its battles oh-so-carefully, includes a rule about colons and lists.

Strunk and White’s Rule 7: “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.”

Wrong: “Your dedicated whittler requires: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.”
It separates the verb (requires) from its complement (a knife).

Right: “Your dedicated whittler requires three props: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.”

The thing is, in recent times, long past even Mr. White’s time, colons and lists are the darling of the Web. Never before in the history of communications has the lowly colon been so important. I believe Steve Krug or Jakob Nielsen gets the credit for this phenomenon. But that’s beside the point.

What is germane is that last night, as I was struggling to finish my EOWG homework, I kept running into drafts where the colon was not used after an independent clause.

Depending on organizational priorities, the business case should explore:

  • Impact for users with disabilities;
  • Broader benefits for everyone, such as usability;
  • Legal aspects that may be applicable to your organization;
  • Impact on corporate social responsibility.

Develop business case draft

But most important, and oh-so-embarrassing, is that I, a Strunk-and-White-wannabe, have been making this mistake for years – repeatedly – often in very public forums. I vow to change my ways. Whether EOWG feels the need is up to it.

Another more common grammar rule about colons and lists has to do with capitalization after a colon. For example Grammar Girl says:“If what follows the colon is a series of sentences, then you should capitalize the first letter of the first word in them all.”

So I put all this together and here, for my good EOWG buddies, is my suggestion for how to write this particular example — plus an offer to help them rewrite other colonized miscreants if they wish me to.

Depending on organizational priorities, the business case should explore some or all of the following topics:

  • The impact for users with disabilities.
  • The broader benefits for everyone.
  • The legal aspects that may be applicable to your organization.
  • The impact on corporate social responsibility.

May the bulleted list live long and prosper….