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Whether to use colons in titles

March 30, 2010 Filed under Blog, Popular, Presentations, Writing 

In Eloquent Science, I discuss my thoughts about colons in titles of scientific articles on pp. 24-25, but only briefly. Dave Mechem (University of Kansas) emailed me to express concern about their overuse in some disciplines like geography, humanities, and some of the social sciences.

For an example, take a look at this issue of Progress in Human Geography. Of the 9 scientific articles, all but one use a colon in the title. Two even use a colon and an em dash! Do people in these disciplines have more to say in the titles than us in the physical sciences? I don’t know. It certainly seems commonplace, if not nearly mandatory in those disciplines.

By comparison, atmospheric science (as well as the other physical sciences) tend not to have as many titles with colons in them. Peter Thrower, the long-time editor of the journal Carbon, wrote an editorial derogatorily calling titles with unnecessary colons in them colonic titles. (If that joke doesn’t make sense to you, check out this definition of colonic.)

Colons, like anything, lose their novelty and effectiveness when overused. Titles with colons often make the titles longer and cutsier than necessary. Of my roughly 80 published papers, I have used a colon or a two-phrase title 14 times, and only four of those cases was I the lead author. Here are some of those titles.

Historical research in the atmospheric sciences: The value of literature reviews, libraries, and librarians.

Castellanus and elevated convection: Ambiguities, significance, and questions.

Maintaining the role of humans in the forecast process. Analyzing the psyche of expert forecasters.

False alarms and close calls: A conceptual model of warning accuracy.

The mysteries of mammatus clouds: Observations and formation mechanisms.

Toward improved prediction: High-resolution and ensemble modeling systems in operations.

Field significance revisited: Spatial bias errors in forecasts as applied to the Eta model.

The use of moisture flux convergence in forecasting convective initiation: Historical and operational perspectives.

The 1993 Superstorm cold surge: Frontal structure, gap flow, and tropical impact.

The March 1993 Superstorm cyclogenesis: Incipient phase synoptic- and convective-scale flow interaction and model performance.

Two cases had trivial uses of the colon.

Evolution of the U.S. tornado database: 1954–2004.

Climatology of severe hail in Finland: 1930–2006.

In only two cases, I might have pushed some people’s buttons as the title might have been perceived as too cutsy or unnecessary. For those cases, I was trying to be a little more provocative.

Are three heads better than two? How the number of reviewers and editor behavior affect the rejection rate.

Weekly precipitation cycles? Lack of evidence from United States surface stations.

Looking back, I think that most of my colonic titles were not excessively long, and the second part of the title after the colon amplified the first part. So, I thought these titles were mostly effective. Sure, many of them could have been written as a single phrase, but then what I wanted to emphasize as the first part would have necessarily been subservient in a revised title. (Writing the Superstorm titles without the colon but trying to keep the word “Superstorm” early in the title is a challenge.)

If an author vowed to never use colons in his titles, I would support that person 100%. But, I would also support others’ ability to use them in a limited and specific sense.

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9 Responses to “Whether to use colons in titles”
  1. Annie Parker says:

    I ran across your blog post as I was trying to find out if the part of the title that comes after the colon has a name. I want to call it a subtitle, but that’s confusing. That word refers to the words that run across the screen during foreign films. While I didn’t find the answer I was looking for I was, quite entertainingly, given yet more issues to mull over. Thank you!

    PS Are they really called colonic titles or were you just using the joke moniker throughout the post?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Annie. Yes, indeed, Peter Thrower does refer to them as colonic titles (his term). I looked in my dictionary and found that subtitle could also mean “a subordinate title of a published work or article giving additional information about its content.” So, I think it is accurate to refer to them as subtitles.

  3. Titles with two colons _really_ drive me nuts.

  4. Adif Gigibaby says:


  5. Lori Moss says:

    Is it acceptable to use TWO colons in one title? Someone I know is writing a book and the working title has two colons it. I just don’t think this is good at all, even if it is acceptable. Thanks.

  6. Prof. David M. Schultz says:


    I can imagine that you might have a main title that has a colon in it (Blue: The Best Color), and then a subtitle (The Story of Why the Sky is Blue). I guess the way the full title would be referenced would be with two colons (Blue: The Best Color: The Story of Why the Sky is Blue). That seems a bit excessive when written that way. But, I can see the appeal of having the main title have a colon. Is there any way for this author to avoid using two colons?



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