The Chronicle of Higher Education: Research & Publishing
From the issue dated January 9, 2004

No Mark of Distinction

Some publishers and scholars want to purge the colon from book titles; the only thing that's worse: semicolons


Brenda Wineapple wants to cut out the academy's colon. She has had trouble doing so herself, even in the titles of her own books. Indeed, it is unlikely that a top-notch gastroenterologist or grammarian could help her achieve her aim.

"I hate colons," says Ms. Wineapple, a professor of modern literature and historical studies at Union College, in New York. Her second book, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1996; reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), is not supposed to have a colon. She wrote the title without one. "Nobody can handle that," she says. So "anyone who ever talks about the book puts it on."

Over the last two decades, academic titles have become increasingly cumbersome, and it is rare to find an academic book title that is not lashed together with a subtitle and its colon. Some books even boast two subtitles, glued tenuously to the title with two colons.

"We joke about the title and the subtitle needing colonoscopies," says Anita Samen, managing editor in the book division of the University of Chicago Press. "People have gone hog-wild with colons."

Academics have always crammed words into titles that they hope will reflect their life's work, say university-press directors. Many of these press mavens are frustrated with a practice that, like tweed, has become a cliché of academics.

Punctuation Parade

According to the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press), "a colon introduces an element or a series of elements illustrating or amplifying what has preceded the colon." But it also advises that when referring to a book, in text and in bibliographies, a colon should be placed between a title and a subtitle, regardless of how they appear on the title page.

Douglas Armato considers the "title: subtitle" arrangement the norm in his business. "The traditional university-press titling protocol is the interesting title that grabs your attention, followed by what is the real title of the book, which is what comes after the colon," says Mr. Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. Increasingly, authors are forced to use subtitles as publishers put out more books on the same topics. The most obvious titles are already taken, he says.

"We've gone through several campaigns to eliminate subtitles entirely, and we're sort of intermittently vigilant about them," he says.

Carrie M. Mullen, the press's executive editor, says that she and her staff try to make titles sound snappier, unique, and a little more straightforward. "We discuss titles a lot with authors," she says. "They get attached to a certain title. It's sometimes hard to back them off it and get them to see how they read it is not necessarily how everyone will read it."

Searches -- and the increased attention that they might generate -- also play a role. "Sometimes you really need that exact information in the subtitle because all the searches people do on Amazon and everywhere else are dependent on pretty precise words in the subtitle," Mr. Armato says.

Colons became the standard in academic publishing roughly 20 years ago, according to Mr. Armato. It had "something to do with the point when you started attracting broader audiences to university-press books."

Before then, libraries made up 80 percent of the market for university presses. Today, he says, libraries make up only 20 percent of that market, with academic presses selling most of their books to individual students and scholars. To attract the latter, they add the snappy title before the colon.


Many academic publishers say that the colon is neither new nor a nuisance. "I've been around forever, close to 40 years, and as far as I can remember, there have always been a lot of colons in academic publishing," says Walter H. Lippincott, director of Princeton University Press. "It's not the colon that's a problem. It's whether the title is clunky or not."

"It could be worse. We could be publishing book titles that have semicolons in the titles," says Kate Douglas Torrey, director of the University of North Carolina Press.

"What the colon does in black tie the semicolon does in khakis," says William Germano, vice president and publishing director at Routledge. "What they have in common in most academic writing is that both tend to be markers of 'watch me do something complicated.'"

Mr. Germano, the author of Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious About Serious Books (University of Chicago Press, 2001), partly blames publishers for the overuse of the colon. "We've led authors to believe the way to make their book attractive is to start with something general or jazzy, then drop your guard and show what you really are writing about," he says.

Meanwhile, Willis G. Regier is displeased that more scholars are putting colons in chapter titles. "It makes absolutely no sense in a table of contents," says Mr. Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press. "We're doing our best to resist it."

Mr. Regier and his staff consult with authors and try to persuade them to make chapter titles, which are supposed to help a reader understand the organization of a book, descriptive "without making them seem as if they're independent essays," he says. "In many cases, chapter titles seem to be a waste of the author's creative resources to come up with a clever title for a chapter instead of making it simple and useful."

He also bemoans the increase in the number of books that have not only a title and subtitle but also another subtitle. There's this "assumption that the title needs to tell you everything that's in the book, that it needs to be something like a mini-abstract." He says it's a reversion to an 18th-century practice in which books had lengthy titles and subtitles. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, originally titled Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships, is an example.

While none of the press directors wanted to cite modern examples of overly long -- and colonic -- titles, a quick search on university-press Web sites reveals there are plenty to choose from: With All, and for the Good of All: The Emergence of Popular Nationalism in the Cuban Communities of the United States, 1848-1898 (Duke University Press); My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, From Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark (University of California Press); Essential Subtleties on the Silver Sea: The Yin-Hai Jing-Wei: A Chinese Classic on Ophthalmology (University of California Press); Edwin J. Cohn and the Development of Protein Chemistry: With a Detailed Account of His Work on the Fractionation of Blood During and After World War II (Harvard University Press).

One colon in the title, Chicago's Ms. Samen says, is acceptable. Two are not. "Sometimes the qualifiers that follow the colon become so specialized that it becomes hard to figure out what the book is about unless you're an expert yourself," she says.

Colon devotees and debunkers do agree on one thing: The punctuation mark makes a lousy first impression. Colons themselves hardly ever appear on book covers. Typically, a smaller typeface denotes the subtitle. Professors rarely demand that publishers print the actual colons because -- like two blemishes on the forehead of a teenager -- everyone agrees they're ugly.

Intriguing the Reader

Some presses, depending on how well they think a book may sell, do their best to eliminate the colon. "If we think the book has any hope of a general audience, we try to get rid of the colon" and have a more general title, says Jennifer Crewe, editorial director at Columbia University Press. That's because the colon, she says, signals that a book is not for a general reader but for a scholar.

Mr. Armato is particularly proud of the title The Karma of Brown Folk. His staff at the University of Minnesota Press thought of it and decided not to add a subtitle because "we really wanted to intrigue people," he says. The book, by Vijay Prashad, is about South Asians in the United States.

Still, it's not the colon itself that bothers Ms. Crewe and her staff, but the long and incomprehensible subtitle that inevitably follows it. "The designers also hate it," she says. "They like to have room to play with the cover and the illustration. They'd rather not have a lot of words in the way."

Neither would Ms. Wineapple. Given her colon aversion, it's somewhat surprising that her recently published third book, Hawthorne: A Life (Alfred A. Knopf), has one. The subtitle, written in a small, cursive typeface, is printed below Hawthorne's face, which stares out eerily from the cover.

"I'll live with it," she says of the subtitle, "because the design is so beautiful."
Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 50, Issue 18, Page A14

Front page | Career Network | Search | Site map | Help

Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education