Is the colon overused in historical titles?

No, I don’t mean the organ in our bodies. I mean the : in historical writings.

What I’m about to say will probably affect, and offend, 90+% of the historical profession. Usually, you need a professorship and an extensive list of titles under your belt to be able to attack the field you work in. I have neither; I’m only a third of the way into my doctorate. This is good news for all of us as this article will be read by almost nobody important, so don’t panic.

I also realise what I write will also irk some of my fellow History Indoors team members who have used the grammatical colon in their talks. For that I am sorry, because I love you all dearly. But as Michael and Lewis have graciously given me this platform, and I probably will be taking a break from writing with the impending arrival of my firstborn child, I thought I’d go out with a blaze of glory and rant/write about my biggest bugbear in history: the use of the colon in book, journal and paper titles.

There are things in the field of history that will annoy each of us. Perhaps it’s the use of the passive tense, which I do without even realising. Perhaps it’s the “erm” at the end of every sentence when you give a talk, which I also do. For me, it’s the current trend of using this formula for the title of a historical work:

[Snazzy catchphrase, meaningless on its own] : [what the book is actually about]

I invite you to play a little game to illustrate this. Below is the first part (before the colon) of ten historical book titles advertised in the last two editions of the BBC History magazine. Can you guess what the books are about?

Frostquake:

Ruin and Renewal:

The First Kingdom:

Passing:

The Fabric of Civilization:

Pandora’s Jar:

Kindred:

The Emperor’s Feast:

Love Lives:

Time’s Monster:

I asked my reluctant wife to play. I also chucked in a few other titles – husband’s privilege. Below are her guesses:

The answers?

Frostquake: The frozen winter of 1962 and how Britain emerged a different country

Ruin and Renewal: Civilising Europe After the Second World War

The First Kingdom: Britain in the age of Arthur

Passing: An Alternative History of Identity

The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals

Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen

Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire

How many did you get right? Maybe you tried a little harder than my wife, who is 39 weeks pregnant and has bigger things to worry about than proving her husband’s point. However, I doubt you were able to figure out the topic of many of these books from the pithy title before the colon. This is a shame, because these books are undoubtedly excellent pieces of research that deserve to be recognised and read.

So, if the snazzy phrase before the colon tells the reader almost nothing about what the book will be about, why do we do it? I had a quick Google to see if anyone else was as bothered by this as me. It turns out there have been a couple of studies about this. In one pertaining to the colon’s use in law titles, two members of the law profession conducted a study to see whether their hunch that the use of the colon had been on the rise was actually true. You can read the study here: http://www.greenbag.org/v10n1/v10n1_articles_deahl_and_eskandari.pdf.

In summary, they discovered that in the most prestigious law journals, the use of the colon in titles of academic papers had remained relatively constant for the past fifty years and appeared in around 40% of titles. In “second-tier” journals (those slightly less prestigious than Harvard and Stanford) however, its use had increased and appeared in around 60% of titles. In explaining this, the authors considered whether the frequent appearance of the colon was due to an abundance of research, i.e. as more papers are written, authors have to over-specify what their paper is about to help it stand out. They dismissed this notion, arguing that the rise of the double colon title ([snazzy title]:[topic of paper]:[more detailed topic of the paper]) still saw this obsession of keeping the snazzy title.

They also discussed whether journal publishers forced authors to use the colon, but this was rejected on the grounds that authors could simply say no. To what extent this stretches to book publishing, the researchers didn’t say. Instead, the authors of the study concluded that its proliferation in second-tier journals was down to imitation: students see that renowned scholars sometimes use the colon, and thus these students over-use it in an attempt to imitate them.

I’d also add that in history, it could also be because authors (and maybe publishers) somehow believe that adding a snazzy epithet makes the book more enticing to non-academics. Conversely, I’d argue that the most magisterial books in my field of American history by the most prestigious authors don’t use a colon at all and are straight to the point, e.g. The Burden of Southern History by C. Vann Woodward and The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter.

Thus, if the conclusion of this study is also true for the history profession, we use the colon in our books and papers because we see other people use the colon. Does it have to be this way?

There are of course essential uses of the colon, especially when denoting a series. The Lord of the Rings series of books best exemplifies this. If Tolkein had just called his book Return of the King, how would anyone know that it linked to the characters in the other books of the trilogy? I also believe it’s useful in the genre of biographies, where many biographies may have been written about the same person. However, in that instance I prefer the part of the title before the colon to be the individual’s name, and the second part to either be clever/informative, for example with Bob Elder’s forthcoming biography on John Calhoun, entitled Calhoun: American Heretic.

Calhoun: American Heretic, is a more acceptable use of the colon for Steven where biographies are concerned.

I also don’t advocate the complete eradication of the use of the colon for creative purposes. In the ten titles above, there are two which I’d concede a genuinely clever uses of the colon. The First Kingdom is an allusion to Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series of books, whilst Assassin’s Deed is a clever play on words of the popular video game series, Assassin’s Creed.

However if we’re being honest, the rest of those titles use the colon for the sake of using a colon, without being overly artful. In my opinion this actually obfuscates the undoubtedly fantastic research that’s inside the book. This becomes a greater problem when browsing books on a shelf in Waterstones when the first part of the book’s title before the colon (the needless part) will undoubtedly be the part written in large print on the book’s spine. How is anyone meant to be lured to the book if the spine gives no reason for the book to be taken off the shelf?

Few of us swim against the tide, and no doubt if I’m ever in a position to publish my first book about statues, I’ll be tempted to call it Stand or Fall: How to Manage Controversial Statues or something like that. Yet, I’ll hopefully challenge myself to simply call it How to Manage Controversial Statues, realising the “stand or fall” adds nothing to the book in isolation. And if the world of history does read this article (I highly doubt it), I challenge every author to not use the colon for their next ten books/papers/publications. Just like it’s unlikely these days that republics relapse into monarchies, I bet that after completing the challenge, you’ll wonder why you ever used the colon in the first place.

Please do leave comments below. Because I see little value in the colon in its overused form, I’d love for people to tell me why they think the colon is important and spark a good discussion! Or perhaps you have other historical bugbears and we could turn this into a “Historical Bugbears:” series – with the correct use of a colon of course.

By Steven Bishop

By Steven Bishop

Steven is researching the recent protests against statues of controversial historical figures across the world, focusing on the complex relationship between history and memory. His other historical interests include the history of the United States of America, especially the period from colonisation to the Civil War. He also have a burgeoning interest in local history and write about Colchester’s many heritage sites in Colchester United’s matchday programme.