The Interrupting Colon and the Singular “They”: Battles Still Worth Fighting?

As another school year begins and I gear up to help my students improve their writing, I find myself wondering if I should stop holding the line on two grammatical issues.

The Interrupting Colon

The first is the rule that a colon cannot come between a verb and its object or complement, even in the lead-in to a bulleted list, as illustrated here:

Highlights will include [no colon]

  • A wine-and-cheese reception.
  • A keynote by President Bob James.
  • Door prizes donated by local businesses.

If this sentence were formatted as a sentence, I believe most people would follow the rule by omitting the colon—but judging from current usage, it appears that most would now use the colon if the introductory words preceded a series formatted as a list. And I tend to agree that without the colon, the introductory words seem to hang there in mid-air, looking briefly like some kind of mistake. (In such cases, I often resort to the ellipsis—“. . .”—but used too often, this solution can be distracting.)

The Singular “They”

The second rule that I see being broken more often than followed these days is the rule that “they” has to be used to refer to a plural antecedent. But how often have you yourself said something like “Everyone who brings in an example will have two points added to their homework grade”? (Just today I read an NPR article saying that a good airport makes it “easy for a passenger to find their way.” Yes, “passenger” could be made plural, but I think the speaker wanted to emphasize the individual’s experience.) In such cases, which is more distracting: the use of “him or her” or the use of “they” to refer to a singular word? I’m beginning to think it’s the former.

Grammar changes as people’s use of it changes, and many rules from yesterday no longer apply today (anybody remember “we shall”?). Maybe it’s time to allow the colon at the end of an incomplete sentence introducing a bulleted list and the singular “they” to refer to an individual of either gender. What do you think?

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