A colon test

I need to follow up on the SAT question I brought up the other day, but first: colons.


I see I’ve just broken the colon rule I was trying to explain to my student last night. 

Oh, well. You’re supposed to break the colon rule, writing blog posts. 

Anyway, last night’s question:

And protect them she did: When workers went on strike, Jones secured food donations and temporary living arrangements. 

G. protections, to name a few, included:
H. she defined protection as:
J. she did this by:

ACT Test 1572CPRE – English Test

The correct answer was F, no change. My student chose J.

I was trying to explain why “J” was wrong . . . and I couldn’t for the life of me remember the terrific colon-use passage I came across just a year ago.

Colon usage is yet another area where, before I began teaching composition, I had essentially zero conscious knowledge. I used colons, but I didn’t know why I did why did. All I knew about colons was that sometimes they sounded right and sometimes they didn’t. 

Such is the nature of basal ganglia learning. You don’t know what you know.

About a year ago I found a terrific explanation of colon whys and wherefores, which I have now not only forgotten but misplaced to boot.

So last night I handled the issue by saying that the clause before the colon in my student’s new sentence lacked its “completer.”

WITHOUT COMPLETER: And she did this by:

WITH COMPLETER: And she did this by taking care of their needs:

Sidebar: The idea of a “completer” seems to work well with students who’ve never been taught grammar. 

All of my students have heard of subjects and predicates, and when you formulate subject-predicate as subject-predicate-completer, they get it immediately. In class, I use Martha Kolln’s ur-sentences (I think these are Kolln’s) to wake this knowledge up in their minds:

The ur-sentences:

Something does something. Rex chased the cat.
Something is something. Rex is sleepy.

That second something is the completer:

Subject | Finite verb | Completer

I give them an intransitive sentence, too, for good measure:
Something does.  Rex growls.

Last night I told my student that if the clause he’s put before a colon needs a completer, it has to have it. You can’t lop off the completer and install a colon in its place.

I think that’s right, but I remember the explanation I’ve lost track of as being more satisfying than that.

Punctuation Made Simple

Looking around the web for something better, I found this, at Punctuation Made Simple:

If you aren’t sure whether you need a colon in a particular sentence, here is a handy test: read the sentence, and when you reach the colon, substitute the word namely; if the sentence reads through smoothly, then there’s a good chance that you do need a colon. For example, you can read any of the example sentences above with the word namely in the place of the colon:

Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] profit.
Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] his stock portfolio.
Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] he wants to get rich.
Joe has three things on h is mind [namely] stocks, bonds, and certificates of deposit.

I love that ! A simple word test.

It doesn’t work for question 72, but I like it nonetheless.

About the particular issue my student was having, “Punctuation Made Simple” has this to say:

. . . do not place the colon after the verb in a sentence, even when you are introducing something, because the verb itself introduces and the colon would be redundant.

“Do not place the colon after the verb”. . . . In standard written English, I think that may be right. It’s certainly easy to remember, and I know the student I’m working with can use it. He recognizes verbs. 

The explanation for the rule–“the verb itself introduces“–is probably more trouble than its worth. (I’m thinking it may be wrong to boot — ? )

But the rest of the page is great.

Must go Skype my student — I’ll try to get the follow-up post re: SAT 2 up soon.

3 thoughts on “A colon test

  1. Here is the section on colons from my book:
    7.12.2 Colons

    Colons are also frequently misused, generally by inserting them where no punctuation at all would be best.

    The colon is normally used between a noun phrase and a restatement of the noun phrase. A common noun phrase before a colon is the following—consider the following: thing one, thing two, and thing three. This usage is so common that a lot of people try to put colons before every list, which is simply wrong. Note that having the list displayed as bullet points doesn’t change any of the punctuation rules. There are no colons unless you are separating a noun phrase from its restatement.

    OK: . . . include the following: a resistor, a capacitor, and a transistor.
    No colon: . . . include a resistor, a capacitor, and a transistor.

    Don’t use a colon between a verb and its object, nor between a preposition and its object, even if the object is a displayed list or a math formula.


    The book is on electronics, but there is a chapter on writing design reports. That chapter is available in the free sample chapters at https://leanpub.com/applied_electronics_for_bioengineers/

    I’ll be updating the book soon (probably December, before the winter courses start in January). People who buy the book get notified of the updates, which are free to purchasers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmmm. I would have said J was wrong because you’re sticking it between the preposition and its object. Not that I know of a particular rule for that, but that lifelong passive-acquired grammar database in my head screams NO.

    Liked by 1 person

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