EGGs and NEGGs

A core principle we were taught at Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute: whenever you introduce a concept, you must always provide not only examples, but nonexamples, as well, especially what Kent Johnson called “close-in nonexamples.

A close-in nonexample is close but no cigar


That’s what gasstation does herewhen he points out that a lot of people, having learned that colons introduce lists:

So that in the nature of man we find three principle causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence, thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third, for reputation.

Thomas Hobbes

. . . proceed to put colons before every list:

So that in the nature of man we find: first, competition; secondly, diffidence, thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third, for reputation.

In other words:

I went to the store and I bought supplies for breakfast: eggs, bacon, juice. (RIGHT)

I went to the store and I bought: eggs, bacon, juice. (WRONG)

Gasstation solves the how-to-teach-it-fast issue by simply telling people not to put a colon after a verb. 

Wonderful!

I think this approach would work when teachers crash-tutor standardized language tests. The challenge, tutoring ACT & SAT English, is that you’re trying to cram a not-insignificant amount of material into a student’s head in a very short period of time.

The material itself is easy, but learning it via brute memorization in 6 weeks’ time is not. 

Don’t put a colon after a verb is exactly the kind of super-short, super-efficient rule a student can pick up quickly and hold on to. No need to get into “completers” and direct objects and all the rest of it.

Just: no colons after verbs.

I like!

5 thoughts on “EGGs and NEGGs

  1. Dang

    I was just texting with my student, who pointed out that you can place a colon after “Here it is” — which means placing a colon after the verb.

    Plus … I forgot that the question that first caused me to introduce the idea of “completers” was this one:

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

    It’s hard to find shortcuts.

    Talking about “completers” might be as short as I can make it . . . .

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  2. You oversimplified a little. What I said was “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 example “Here it is: the counter-example” doesn’t violate my rule, and does follow the rule of the colon coming before a a re-statement of what is in front of the colon.

    The colon goes after a complete thing (a noun phrase or clause) not in the middle of something, so not between a verb and object nor between a preposition and object.

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  3. “The colon goes after a complete thing (a noun phrase or clause) not in the middle of something, so not between a verb and object nor between a preposition and object.” That looks like a pretty accurate formulation to me; the “thing” you describe is referred to linguists as a constituent.

    (In his “Syntactic Phenomena of English” book, McCawley provides a bunch of tests you can use to determine if a group of words is a constituent).

    There are a couple more restrictions that I can think of off-hand:
    –You can’t put a colon between a subject phrase and a predicate phrase
    (The quick brown fox: jumped over the lazy dog)
    –You can’t put a colon between a modifier and the main clause
    (When I have time: I may think of more restrictions)

    I’m not sure how often people make these kinds of errors, however.

    Like

  4. Not just parts of speech, but types of phrases. Both would have to be a starting point for any type of instruction.

    (My sense is that, if any “grammar” is still being taught in schools, it’s parts of speech, but only for the sake of identifying and labeling, not for the sake of learning principles of well-formed, properly-punctuated sentences).

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