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Capitalizing after semicolons or colons

When it comes to the question of whether to capitalize the first word after a semicolon or colon, the answer is likely “it depends”. Often, the decision requires identifying the independent and dependent clauses in the sentence. As a reminder, independent clauses, also known as restrictive clauses, contain a subject and a verb and can act as a sentence without additional information; e.g., the sun is shining. Independent clauses present the essential information in a sentence. Dependent clauses, also known as nonrestrictive clauses, may also contain a subject and a verb, but they are incomplete sentences that need an independent clause to make sense, e.g., which is a pleasant surprise. A dependent clause provides non-essential information, and if removed, the remaining sentence would still make sense. Together, independent and dependent clauses create descriptive sentences: The sun is shining, which is a pleasant surprise.

Please see below for an explanation of when to capitalize the word after a semicolon or colon:

Semicolon

  • Do not capitalize the first word in a list after a semicolon unless the word is a proper noun, e.g., During Julie's vacation, she visited many Canadian cities, including St. John's, which is one of Canada's oldest cities; Ottawa, which is Canada's capital city; and Toronto, which is Canada's largest city.
  • When using a semicolon to join two independent clauses, do not capitalize the first word of the second independent clause unless the word is a proper noun, e.g., The sky is blue; the birds are singing.
  • Capitalize an author's name after a semicolon in a multi-author citation, e.g., (Brown & Lee, 2010; Johnson & Smith, 2009).

Colon

  • When using a colon to join two independent clauses, capitalize the first word of the independent clause after the colon (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 90), e.g., Flooding caused road closures on January 28, 2016: Highway 1A and Cowichan Bay Road were both affected by washouts (Harnett, 2016).
  • Do not capitalize the first word of a dependent clause after a colon, e.g., I have three tasks to complete before my document is finished: check my references, proofread for typos, and read the document out loud to ensure the text makes sense.
  • Capitalize the first word of a block quotation after a colon when the quotation is an independent clause; see Example 2 in "Block Quotation Examples" (American Psychological Association, n.d.) for information.
  • When deciding whether to capitalize the first word of a bulleted or numbered item, consider whether the item is an independent or a dependent clause. If the item is an independent clause, capitalize the first word (Becker, 2011, para. 3). If the item is a dependent clause, do not capitalize the first word (para. 3). For examples, please see “Lists, Part 5: Bulleted Lists” from the APA Style Blog.
  • Capitalize the first word of a subtitle (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 101), e.g., This is the title: This is the subtitle.

Do you have questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing centre coordinator

(Originally published in Crossroads June 23, 2016)

References

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Block quotation examples. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/files/block-quotations.pdf

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. 

Becker, D. (2011, June 30). Capitalization after colons [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2011/06/capitalization-after-colons.html

Harnett, C. (2016, January 28). Crofton-area road closed by washout; Trans-Canada traffic flowing. Times Colonist. Retrieved from www.timescolonist.com

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