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
By JENNIFER JACOBSON
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
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.
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."
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
"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
Copyright © 2004 by The Chronicle of Higher Education