Our computer keyboard isn’t the same as that of an old typewriter, but one constant is the seldom-used colon/semicolon key. Do you use it with confidence? Do you use it at all? Because Rodney Dangerfield probably would have said the colon and semicolon don’t get much respect, I’ll try to build their brand over the next few weeks.
A few days ago, I came across a headline on the op-ed page that I had to read several times to understand: Big challenges in mayoral race are the people too poor to care. Huh?
I finally figured out how to make sense of the headline and that the op-ed was addressing a sad fact: The percentage of people below the poverty line in Cleveland’s inner city is steadily increasing while the percentage of registered voters who exercise that right is alarmingly decreasing. Therefore, the election this November might suffer from an apathetic citizenry.
Aha. Finally understanding the headline, I saw many ways to reword it for clarity, and one of them was using a colon: Big challenge in mayoral race: The people may be too poor to care.
A helpful alternative to “to be”
If you use a colon only when “announcing” a list, you might want to consider how effectively the colon can clean up a clumsy headline or make a sentence like the following punchier: The two interns we are hiring after their graduations are Ann Armstrong and Burt Boyd. That sentence is weak because it falls back on “are” twice, and the verb “to be” (“are,” “is,” “was,” “have been,” etc.) lends no zip to our writing. So why not revise slightly with a little help from the colon? We are hiring two interns after their graduations: Ann Armstrong and Burt Boyd.