Capitalizing Words After a Colon in a Sentence

To capitalize or not to capitalize:
That is the question! 


With apologies to William Shakespeare and Hamlet, I’m sure you get the point. Many of us have wondered about this without ever coming to a decision; it seems like it should be easy to figure out but then we forget to check on it.

We may be confused on this topic because we remember someone saying we should capitalize the first word after a colon, but we also remember someone saying we shouldn’t.

What’s a poor writer to do?

So to give you the best information on this pressing issue, I went looking for the definitive answer. Let’s face it: Sometimes things do change, even grammar rules! And I would hate to lead you astray!

What did I find? There is no definitive answer. Even the best authorities don’t completely agree. But at least the AP and Chicago Manual almost agree on this topic. Almost.

The AP and the Chicago Manual of Style agree on this:

Use a lowercase letter for the first word after a colon unless the word is a proper name.

  • These are my favorite foods: ice cream, lobster, and chocolate.
  • I listened to my friend sing that aria: painful!
  • Sarah has a number of hobbies: reading, knitting, and gardening.
  • Tom has lived in several cities: Boston, Chicago, and Houston.
  • Three agencies were represented: NASA, the FBI, and the CIA.

OK so far? Well, then the AP and Chicago part ways.

The AP says use a capital letter for the first word after a colon if it is either a proper name OR the first word of a complete sentence

  • I listened to my friend sing that aria: It was painful to hear.
  • We learned a great lesson from that failure: In the future, we need to watch our expenses more carefully.

The Chicago Manual says to use a capital letter if the first word is a proper name OR the start of at least two complete sentences or a direct quotation or question.

  • Several questions came up at the conference: Did we make our goals? Were we on target? What’s next for us?
  • We made some important decisions at the meeting: We need to focus on our expenses every month. We need to add at least one client per month. We need to hire two sales associates immediately.


So in keeping with the KISS principle, try this:
If the first word after a colon in a sentence is a proper name, the pronoun “I,” or the start of another sentence, capitalize it.

If it isn’t, don’t.

You could do worse, right? Since no one really knows how to handle this issue, you’ll at least have something to fall back on. But remember: This is an AMERICAN style, and yours may be different.

Does that work for you? Great! So now you can go do something really important like calling your mom to say “I love you” or cuddling with someone special (yes, your dog or cat counts).

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