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Capitals After Colons

Word includes many grammar and spelling aids to help make the job of writing just a bit easier. (Or more frustrating, depending on your viewpoint and needs.) One thing that Word did not include, however, was a feature to automatically capitalize the first word after a colon. In many grammatical circles, it is standard (and proper) to capitalize the first letter of the word immediately following a colon. Since Word does not include this feature, what is a person to do?

Well, the first (and obvious) solution is to simply remember to capitalize the word yourself—i.e., press the Shift key and capitalize the letter as you type. If you are looking for a more automatic approach, then there are several methods from which you can choose. Some Word users might be inclined to think you could use Word's AutoCorrect feature. Theoretically, all you need to do is define a series of new AutoCorrect entries that consist of a colon, followed by a space, and then a lowercase letter. You would then instruct AutoCorrect to replace this sequence with a colon, a space, and the corresponding uppercase letter. Of course, you would have to add 26 such entries, one for each letter of the alphabet.

After doing all this work in AutoCorrect, however, you would immediately find out that it did not work. Why? Because AutoCorrect only uses spaces and punctuation as "triggers" to signal a change may be needed. In other words, the AutoCorrect approach would work if you were typing a colon, a space, a lowercase character, and then another space. This means that in the phrase "this is: a dirty shame" the letter "a" would be replaced by AutoCorrect with an uppercase "A". However, in the phrase "this is: another dirty shame," AutoCorrect does no correction at all. Thus, AutoCorrect can't be used to achieve the desired results.

One possible solution is to try to use Find and Replace. If you perform a wildcard search you could search for a colon followed by any lowercase letter, as in this search pattern:

: ([a-z])

The Replace With pattern should be simple, like this:

: \1

The trick is to make sure that you replace with formatting set to all caps and no small caps. You could even formalize this approach with a reusable macro:

Sub CapAfterColons()
    With ActiveDocument.Range.Find
        .ClearFormatting
        With .Replacement.Font
            .SmallCaps = False
            .AllCaps = True
        End With

        .MatchWildcards = True
        .Text = ": ([a-z])"
        .Replacement.Text = ": \1"
        .Execute Replace:=wdReplaceAll
    End With
End Sub

You could assign this macro to a button on your toolbar and thereby catch all your mistakes in one quick step. There is one thing to be aware of with this approach, be it manual or with a macro: it does not change the first character after a colon to a "true" capital letter. What it does is to change the formatting of the colon, space, and first character to All Caps. This means that the character, even though lowercase, is displayed by Word as uppercase. (You can see this formatting setting in the Font dialog box.)

As a final suggestion, if you don't like to mess with macros, you can still use the AutoCorrect feature, but this time a little differently. Set up AutoCorrect to replace any instance of a colon with a colon-period combination. Thus, as you are typing, when you type a colon followed by a space, Word automatically changes it to a colon followed by a period and then a space. Word's AutoCorrect feature will then, automatically, capitalize the next letter you type since it believes it is the first letter of a sentence. (After all, it follows a period.) When you are done with your document, all you need to do is one quick search and replace to change the colon-period pairs back to just a colon.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (483) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003.

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Comments for this tip:

Malcolm    10 Apr 2013, 07:38
Caps after colon to introduce a full sentence: NY Times Style Book 1950, p27 (when I first became copy editor); Prentice Hall Manual of Style (Words into Type)3rd Edn, 1974, p145. I'm sure it's in the Chicago Manual of Style, too. English barbarians do not know the rule, alas; Americans are more discriminating.
Peter FERRILL    09 Apr 2013, 08:43
Malcolm's assertion that only sentences with an active verb require an initial capital following a colon is intriguing. From which grammatical code is this derived? And I'd love to see the macro that could cope with this requirement.
Oma Hampton    07 Apr 2013, 13:22
I am not sure that my comment was fullly understood. I am a MEDICAL TRANSCRIPTIONIST. I am NOT doing generalized typing. Not yelling, just stressing that there are different capitalization rules for my profession. I have to capitalize the first letter after a colon and two spaces. In medical transcription, we use headings to give information on each part of the body. We are REQUIRED to capitalize the first letter after a colon. Whether it is a complete sentence or not. For example:

PHYSICAL EXAMINATION
Vital signs: Vital signs have been very good.
Lungs: Fully clear.
Heart: Regular.
Abdomen: Soft and nontender. Bowel sounds are present.
Extremities: No pedal edema.
Neuropsych: Status is stable. Patient is relatively attentive. Speech is nonsensical; still unable to express anything meaningful.

That is just a short version. Whether it is just one word or a group of words, it MUST be capitalized. We have other places in our reports where we use capital letters after a colon. Names of medications are also capitalized when using a list format whether they are generic or brand name. I only bring that point up to stress that we do NOT use normal capitalization rules. I appreciate that you took time to respond, but I am REQUIRED to use a capital after a colon. I can be fired for not doing so. I need a Macro that will do this for me. I type reports for 40 patients on a daily basis. Going back over the reports for proofing is time consuming anyway. I need something to decrease that time so that my production can increase. Thank you for your time, although your answer did not apply in my particular case.
Malcolm    06 Apr 2013, 06:03
You should only capitalize sentences with an active verb after a colon.
Thus ...
One mistake was obvious: the colour.
One mistake was obvious: He had picked the wrong colour.

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