Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Writing Tips: Introducing the Jumper Colon

I confess: I’ve discovered the coolest new grammatical device, which is both pragmatic and bleeding-edge radical. In a scintillating article called Colonoscopy: It’s Time to Check Your Colons, writer / teacher Conor J. Dillon observes a curious new grammatical creation which has cropped up in modern writing. He starts by describing four precursor colons; the lister, the talker, the national extension, and the juxtaposer.

He then builds on that list by giving us this bonus fifth colon. It’s kind of brilliant.

For grammarians, it’s a dependent clause + colon + just about anything, incorporating any and all elements of the other four colons, yet differing crucially in that its pre-colon segment is always a dependent clause.

For everyone else: its usefulness lies in that it lifts you up and into a sentence you never thought you’d be reading by giving you a compact little nugget of information prior to the colon and leaving you on the hook for whatever comes thereafter, often rambling on until the reader has exhausted his/her theoretical lung capacity and can continue to read no longer.

See how fast that goes? The jumper colon is a paragraphical Red Bull, a rocket-launch of a punctuator, the Usain Bolt of literature. It’s punchy as hell. To believers of short first sentences–Hemingway?–it couldn’t get any better. To believers of long-winded sentences that leave you gasping and slightly confused–Faulkner?–it also couldn’t get any better. By itself this colon is neither a period nor a non-period… or rather it is a period and it is also a non-period. You choose.

The jumper colon is a pragmatic, elegant enabler for the punchy sort of speech favored by modern writers, and I adored it the moment I first laid eyes on one. In fact, Dillon makes the intriguing argument that modern compression typing (phone text messages and fitting Twitter ideas into 140 characters) has ushered in acceptance of the jumper colon. “To that end, rules be damned, a new punctuator has been born.”

One caveat — I’m thinking the jumper colon is ideally suited to articles and blog posts and (yes, Tweets and texts). But can we use it for story dialogue? For example, my friend, author L.S. King, cautions not to use semi-colons in dialogue.
People don't talk in semicolons. Don't use them in dialogue. If the English professor in you is itching to put a semicolon inside those quotes, substitute em dashes or just separate the sentences with a period. Period.
Fair enough. For this post, I asked Lee about colons in dialogue. She said colons are fine, although she usually uses em-dashes instead. I do, too, now that I think about it. But how about this? "Steve, your turn. Best meal ever: Go!" That looks and sounds like a genuine conversation to me, and I like it better than the variant with the em-dash.

In closing, Conor Dillion’s article is brilliant and funny and full of cool real-world examples. If you haven’t already, you should run to the link above and bask in the examples he provides.
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