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December 1st, 2004

Underway or under way / capitals after colons

by Barbara Wallraff

G. Halvorson, of Stoughton, Wis., writes: “The word ‘underway’ is now frequently seen split into two separate words: ‘under way.’ I find this annoying. According to this usage, soon we’ll be seeing terms such as ‘under go’ and ‘under take.’”

Dear G.: The verbs “undergo” and “undertake” are in no danger of coming apart, believe me. You’re looking at “under way” the wrong way around. That is the traditional form, and “underway” is the upstart. Among the meanings of “way,” the Oxford English Dictionary reports, is “progress (of a ship or boat) through the water; rate of progress, velocity.” Thus one Samuel Sturmy wrote in The Mariner’s Magazine in 1669: “If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship’s way, you fall a Stern.” A man who writes “astern” as two words, I’ll grant you, isn’t the best guide to modern usage -- but that’s the idea. A ship that’s “under sail” or “under steam” is also “under way.” The one-word form is best saved for use as an adjective, in front of a noun, as in “an underway change of direction.”

Nancy Cutway, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “I’m distressed to see that you, too, have succumbed to the error that is my pet peeve these days: you use a capital letter after a colon. I was taught that a colon is not a period, and that only after a period does one capitalize the first letter of the next word. I don’t know when this error crept into printed English, but I have noticed it for several years in popular magazines and newspapers.”

Dear Nancy: My punctuation might surprise you if I could do exactly as I pleased in this column. For the most part I, along with you, would prefer to use lowercase letters after colons. But every now and then, a colon leads into more than one sentence, and when it does, I’d use a capital letter. For instance, “There are three possibilities: We can use lowercase letters habitually. We can use capitals habitually. Or we can vary our choices according to context.” I would, though, lowercase the first letter after the colon in “There are three possibilities: one is lowercase letters, the second is capitals, and the third is a mixture of the two.”

Furthermore -- now that I’m on the subject -- if I could do just as I pleased, I’d use serial commas. A serial comma is the one that either does or doesn’t appear after “capitals” near the end of the previous paragraph. If you see a comma there, your newspaper’s copy editors have cut me some slack. If you don’t, they’ve overruled me in favor of standard newspaper style. (That’s also what’s happened if I seem to have flouted my own rules about colons.) To be honest, that’s OK with me. Copy editors have a demanding job, making writing from a wide range of sources readable and consistent, under tight deadline pressure. If they save a little time by routinely doing without serial commas and capitalizing the first word of any sentence after a colon, that’s time they have to spend on more important things. Try not to mind those capital letters. They’re a style decision, not an error.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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