Sunday, September 19, 2010

Against the Titular Colon


One of my professors swears by colons in titles. He tells an anecdote: "I submitted a paper and it was rejected, with no notes. I added a colon to the title, changed nothing else, and it was accepted immediately." He has a sense of humor about this of course. But he still expects colons. The way I see it, the colon is making our titles ugly, and it's making our scholars lazy.

What the Colon Does
Since my papers were long enough and intense enough to warrant colons in their titles,
I've raged against the colon machine. Or at least poked fun at it, sometimes with a colon. Consider this: colons give the reader pause; colons begin lists (and our friend the semi-colon helps us with the listing); colons suggest that thing two explains thing one.

The second function of the colon listed here is not important to titles, because we can see at a glance we're not reading a list. The first function of the colon, however, is hard to ignore. When a title has a colon in it (usually closer to the front of the title than to the end of it), it makes the reader pause a little. We haven't even begun to read the first paragraph of the paper or article, and we've already been made to pause. I think the writer who requires a pause from the reader before he's even said anything meaningful must think a lot of himself. Writers' egomania aside, a pause in a short phrase like a title is not very elegant. If I look at the bibliography from my literary criticism class, there is not a single title with a colon in it. Defence of Poetry, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Poetics, Biographia Literaria, name only a few. One might argue that these titles are antiquated, that the colon is a modern title expectation or even requirement with a modern purpose. But does it make for a good title? No. These old titles are elegant, they flow, and they don't ask for pause in the middle of a first thought. They build expectations, they give hints, and they keep the reader reading. (I'm in reader-response mode this week, so naturally I'm thinking of the responses...)

"Defense! of poetry! Is literature at war!?"
"Oooh, lyrical ballads that can't be read until we read the illuminating preface..."
"Poetics, huh. Well, that must cover just about everything. I'd better get started."
"Biographia whaaa? I gotta find out!"

The "pause" funtion of the colon may create unstylish titles with bad flow, but the "thing two explains thing one" function of the colon is the real, supposedly useful reason these dots make themselves at home in today's titles. Like the professor's story shows, a reviewer may not be able to tell what your paper is about without that explanatory phrase after the colon. He doesn't want to guess or be given exciting expectations -- he wants to get through the pile quickly. So papers as commodities (both economic and academic) sell better when they have colons in the titles. Why not use these titles fow reviewing purposes only, and use a shorter version for print? I can't think of any other way around the over-explained titles. Certainly if something made it into a paperback for sale it would need a better title. No paying customer is going to stand for colons everywhere. It starts to seem like those old works with the short titles can wield those titles because they live up to the expectations they give us. Perhaps no one today can write anything that lives up to the "epicness" suggested by a beautiful or brief title? Or do the titles just have to get longer and longer, like phone numbers, because we've used them all up?

One big difference between the works in the bibliography and the colon-titled papers is the length and breadth -- most of those older works cover a lot of ground, but academic contributions today are doled out bite-sized. Scholars are writing shorter papers (for better dissemination) and being specific about what's in them is more important. I get all that. But that doesn't make the colon any prettier.

I have read some later pieces that do well with the short title. "On..." or "Against..." usually makes for a good start. So does "In defense of..." as we can see in many of the ancient titles. Irwin's "Against Intertextuality" comes to mind. And Fish's "Interpreting the Variorum," which I have to read this week for a presentation. Both of those titles intrigue me to no end.

What We Do with the Colon
We looked at why the colon might affect the reader, but we also have to consider what the sneaky scholars intended for it. There are several ways that the colon makes for titles that come off as knowing what they're talking about, or as some modern manifestation of style (if you can call it that -- bad style is an oxymoron, so there is disagreement on whether it can exist). The colon is often used in combination with a quotation from the work of literature being discussed, or from an earlier critic's work. Using a quotation is a clever way to make use of the explanatory function of the colon. Most often the quotation is placed before the colon, and after is a description of what the paper is really about. Here's two real examples:

"Telepathic shock and meaning excitement": Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy

"Go": Milton's Antinomianism and the Separation Scene in Paradise Lost

The first title, as these titles so often do, borrows from Kerouac's style to create a style of its own. The scholar doesn't write like that, Kerouac does. And now she has a ready-made sexy title because she put his words into it. Thanks to the colon. And I don't even think she needed it! "Kerouac's Poetics and Intimacy" is a beautiful title by itself. Now, the second title is just ridiculous. Using a single word from the separation scene that doesn't mean much of anything in a title, the scholar got the "necessary" colon into it. The rest of the title is just clumsy. She might have closed her eyes and pointed to a line of the poem to save her shoddy title. "If I put something in front of the colon it will all be okay!" Neither of these papers are bad. I used both of them in papers I wrote my senior year. I take issue only with the titles.

Another way the colon is used by scholars is for a straight explanation of the short-version title. I already said why I think this has become somewhat necessary in today's market, but it means that scholars no longer have to have any elegance or authority in their titles because the pauses and complications of the colon-assisted title are expected. You can look through any catalog of university press books to find some hideous examples of these. You can just picture the writers of these books and articles smirking as they select the perfect quote to steal from the authors, type their obligatory colons, and sit back knowing they'll be published (or at least read) for playing the colon game so cleverly. I also picture cultural criticism and media studies fans getting giddy reading through these things. The longer the title, the more esoteric words in it, the more excited they get. Here's a clumsy one that's sure to fire up a lumpy subset of readers:
Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games

For some fictional examples of how egregious these titles can get, try this English paper title generator. The results are not far from the real thing.

One more disclaimer -- Subtitles are used in a similar way in the titling of books. There's something different about book titles though. They often have an elegant short title even if it's followed by a subtitle (which would be after the colon in a paper title). Maybe because the thing is actually getting printed in a book the scholar took the time to make a title that doesn't sound like all the others.

So I may or may not use a colon when I write my first paper as a graduate student. It's not going to get thrown out or rejected, since the professor actually has to read and grade the thing. Should I be bold and forgo the double dots? Maybe next week. This week I'll do as the assignment guidelines ask (yes, it's actually on the guidelines).

P.S. I know what "titular" means and the play on words doesn't quite work, but I left it there because I liked the sound of all those body parts in the title.

1 comment:

  1. This is the awesomest thing ever. I totally, totally agree. I have to say the titular comma is perhaps the most amazing, least annoying title-thingy. But then, I think there is the grand, great alternative sub-title, beginning with "or," which does I guess what you here call for in the most explicit way. This makes Pornography, the Theory: or, What Utilitarianism Did to Action, by Frances Ferguson the best title ever (and it's a really good book too!).


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