COLONS: THREAT OR MENACE?

According to an article by Jennifer Jacobson in The Chronicle of Higher Education, some people are seriously annoyed by colons in titles:

Brenda Wineapple wants to cut out the academy’s colon. She has had trouble doing so herself, even in the titles of her own books. Indeed, it is unlikely that a top-notch gastroenterologist or grammarian could help her achieve her aim.
“I hate colons,” says Ms. Wineapple, a professor of modern literature and historical studies at Union College, in New York. Her second book, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996; reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), is not supposed to have a colon. She wrote the title without one. “Nobody can handle that,” she says. So “anyone who ever talks about the book puts it on.”

According to the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press), “a colon introduces an element or a series of elements illustrating or amplifying what has preceded the colon.” But it also advises that when referring to a book, in text and in bibliographies, a colon should be placed between a title and a subtitle, regardless of how they appear on the title page.
Douglas Armato considers the “title: subtitle” arrangement the norm in his business. “The traditional university-press titling protocol is the interesting title that grabs your attention, followed by what is the real title of the book, which is what comes after the colon,” says Mr. Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. Increasingly, authors are forced to use subtitles as publishers put out more books on the same topics. The most obvious titles are already taken, he says.
“We’ve gone through several campaigns to eliminate subtitles entirely, and we’re sort of intermittently vigilant about them,” he says.
Carrie M. Mullen, the press’s executive editor, says that she and her staff try to make titles sound snappier, unique, and a little more straightforward. “We discuss titles a lot with authors,” she says. “They get attached to a certain title. It’s sometimes hard to back them off it and get them to see how they read it is not necessarily how everyone will read it.”
Searches—and the increased attention that they might generate—also play a role. “Sometimes you really need that exact information in the subtitle because all the searches people do on Amazon and everywhere else are dependent on pretty precise words in the subtitle,” Mr. Armato says.
Colons became the standard in academic publishing roughly 20 years ago, according to Mr. Armato. It had “something to do with the point when you started attracting broader audiences to university-press books.”…
Many academic publishers say that the colon is neither new nor a nuisance. “I’ve been around forever, close to 40 years, and as far as I can remember, there have always been a lot of colons in academic publishing,” says Walter H. Lippincott, director of Princeton University Press. “It’s not the colon that’s a problem. It’s whether the title is clunky or not.”
“It could be worse. We could be publishing book titles that have semicolons in the titles,” says Kate Douglas Torrey, director of the University of North Carolina Press…
Meanwhile, Willis G. Regier is displeased that more scholars are putting colons in chapter titles. “It makes absolutely no sense in a table of contents,” says Mr. Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press. “We’re doing our best to resist it.”…
He also bemoans the increase in the number of books that have not only a title and subtitle but also another subtitle. There’s this “assumption that the title needs to tell you everything that’s in the book, that it needs to be something like a mini-abstract.” He says it’s a reversion to an 18th-century practice in which books had lengthy titles and subtitles. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, originally titled Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships, is an example…
One colon in the title, Chicago’s Ms. Samen says, is acceptable. Two are not. “Sometimes the qualifiers that follow the colon become so specialized that it becomes hard to figure out what the book is about unless you’re an expert yourself,” she says.
Colon devotees and debunkers do agree on one thing: The punctuation mark makes a lousy first impression. Colons themselves hardly ever appear on book covers. Typically, a smaller typeface denotes the subtitle. Professors rarely demand that publishers print the actual colons because—like two blemishes on the forehead of a teenager—everyone agrees they’re ugly.

Me, I agree with Lippincott both that colons have been around forever and that they’re not in themselves a problem. They’re a part of academic titles, just as tuxedos are a part of awards ceremonies. I just wish they’d do something about the turgid writing between the covers.
(Via Taccuino di traduzione.)

Comments

  1. It’s like apostrophes in invented languages. We’ll never get rid of ‘em, much though they deserve to be sliced to ribbons.

  2. Interesting article: thanks for the link.
    One of my favourite examples of colon-and-redundant-subtitle syndrome is Ernest B. Gilman’s book Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation: Down Went Dagon (Princeton UP, 1986). What must have happened here, I think, is that the author wanted Down Went Dagon as the main title, but his editor said no and banished it to the subtitle. The colon is the seam, as it were, where the conflicting opinions of author and editor have been crudely cobbled together.
    In my experience, academic editors tend to be fixated on the idea of ‘keywords’ and will tell you that your book won’t sell unless it has the right keywords in the title. The result, in my own particular neck of the academic woods, is an endless series of variations on the theme ‘Literature, Politics and the Public Sphere in Renaissance England’ , requiring a colon-and-subtitle to tell you what the book is actually about.

  3. I wonder why no one uses “De” or “On” anymore. “On Imaginary Animals.” “On the Enthymeme as a Counterpart of Syllogism.” “De Vegetalibus et Plantibus.” Simple, sweet, and not a colon in sight.

  4. Is there a book published today that DOESN’T have a colon in its title?

  5. A relative once asked me if my dissertation was going to have some catchy title followed by a colon and then something stating what my dissertation was really about. Even though my title is still up in the air, I had to admit that this was the case. Then he asked me why academics don’t try reversing things, and make the part before the title tell you what the thing was really about. I had to admit he has a point!

  6. Do you know why truckers tend to have intestinal problems?
    They have semi-colons.

  7. Leave those cola alone. In fact, help bring back the virgule on title pages.

  8. Worse, my local newspaper’s addicted to them. (Well, the editor’s just retired; we’ll see if the new broom sweeps clean.) I’ve grabbed it right now and had to go no farther than p.2 for an example: A MIX-UP: Terror fears ruin family wedding trip. But they come much much more heinous, like GOOD: Saddam captured. That’s not much of an exaggeration.

  9. I just ripped off that Chronicle story for my paper today… More on the colon issue on my blog (fence.blogspot.com). Language Hat, you’re my favourite MeFi-er. Keep it up.

  10. Why, thank you, sir! And I love the Kiki Benzon quote.

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