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Caroline's Corner: Colons at the end of labels?

Source: UN, 1 May 2006

Caroline Jarrett of Effortmark ends April 2006 with thoughts on punctuation for forms - a subject close to her heart so her advice is particularly surprising...

It’s been a long month - lots to do, lots to think about. And what, in the whole wide world, am I going to thrill you with this month?

Well, my dear and loyal readers: it’s forms again. That’s what comes of a column written by a forms obsessive. This time: colons. Or should it be: 'This time: Colons'? Or is it: 'This time: Colons?'.

Yes, you are right. You have entrusted your valuable time to someone with a *double obsession*. Forms AND punctuation. Aargh. But stick with me - it gets better.

The problem

You are writing captions or labels for fields in forms, for example “Name” or “Date of birth”. Should they be finished with a colon, or not? For example, The New York Times uses colons, The Times (that is, the one based in London) does not.

The answer

If you have an answer, was it one of these?

  • 'The form looks cleaner without the colons'.
  • 'Colons add to development time, because each one is an extra keystroke'.
  • 'If the caption is outside the box, use a colon. If it is inside the box, don’t'.
  • 'Colons introduce the box and show that the label is distinctive'.
  • 'Do whatever it says in the Chicago Manual of Style' (or whatever your preferred grammatical or punctuation guide might be).
  • 'The Microsoft standard is to use colons. So they are essential' (or whatever your preferred user interface set of guidelines might be).

... or maybe you had some other ones. If you did, then welcome to my world! If you found yourself arguing with some of my answers then you, too, are showing incipient signs of double obsession.

The reality

Why am I being light-hearted about this problem? Because, dear readers, it doesn’t matter. That’s right. I don’t care! And that's about a fine detail of forms that I am not caring! Who would have thought it?

The fact is that in over 15 years of testing all sorts of forms - paper, web, application, you name it - NEVER ONCE has any user commented on the presence or absence of colons. They don’t notice them. They don’t care. And so I have learned not to care either.

The solution

So the thing to do is pick one method and stick with it. If you work in a democratic team, then vote. If you prefer to govern by diktat, then get the boss to choose. If you’re not sure how to choose, then flip a coin. But make the choice final. Inconsistency looks messy. Messy is bad - and messy is noticed by users.

And never, ever argue about it again.

If you have any comments or suggestions about this article then please contact Caroline at: Caroline.Jarrett@Effortmark.co.uk

Caroline Jarrett is a usability consultant specialising in forms, questionnaires and data capture. © 2006 Caroline Jarrett, all rights reserved.

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