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. 


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!

gasstationwithoutpumps on colons (and a link to his 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 . . . 

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.


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.

Is “its” on it’s way out?

Here’s another candidate for a rule that will be gone in 20 years: the distinction between “its” and “it’s.” Everywhere, even in published material, the latter seems to be displacing the former.

And what with basal ganglia and contagious speech patterns, we’re probably all subconsciously learning to favor “it’s”. The more often we favor it (it’s), the more often we favor it.

One could even make a grammatical case for this displacement–one that doesn’t invoke the French! Possessive nouns get the apostrophe (“the cat’s pajamas”), so why not possessive pronouns*?

*In fact, we already have one pronoun that does get an apostrophe: “one”, as in “one should mind one’s ps and qs.”

While we’re on the subject of fading rules…

Another 20 years from now, comma splices won’t be comma splices.

They’ll just be commas.

That’s my prediction.

Twenty years from now comma splices will be correct because:

a) no one under the age of 30 (or thereabouts) knows what they are 
b) no one over the age of 30 (or thereabouts) has any idea how to teach them. 

Also, comma splices don’t exist in French.

French !

The French have a whole Académie dedicated to “fix[ing] the French language, giving it rules, rendering it pure and comprehensible by all,” yet they don’t have a rule that says No comma splices.

Well, I say: If French people don’t have to care about comma splices, neither do we. 

And see:
Académie française
Participles that may be on their way out 

More fun with exclamation points, part 2

John Keilman, writing in the Chicago Tribune:

If you’re trying to get yourself uninvited from your Aunt Edith’s unbearable holiday fondue party, I suggest you try this trick: Send her a Christmas card that includes not one exclamation point.

Season’s greetings. All the best to you and the kids. Have a wonderful 2016.

I promise she will cut you from the guest list in a flash. After years of exclamation point creep, failing to use one in social and even business correspondence marks you as a frigid and aloof misanthrope without a drop of good fellowship.


“An exclamation point is like laughing at your own jokes,” F. Scott Fitzgerald supposedly wrote in one withering and oft-cited maxim.

But in recent years, exclamation points have become an almost compulsory part of written communication. . . .

The marks have become so ubiquitous that leaving one out feels like a statement, even when none is intended. A just-published study of text messages, for example, found that texts ending with a simple period are more likely to be viewed as insincere.

Or, as a satirical story in The Onion put it: “In a diabolical omission of the utmost cruelty, stone-hearted ice witch Leslie Schiller sent her friend a callous thank-you email devoid of even a single exclamation point, sources confirmed Monday.”

Reading this, I was questioning whether anyone alive today actually has an Aunt Edith.

Looks like there are still a few of them around.


And see: More fun with exclamation points

More fun with exclamation points

Disclosure: I am a person who, when texting, likes to use exclamation points.

Lots of exclamation points.

I like using question marks, too, especially question marks in conjunction with exclamation points.



She *said* that???!!!

Out **loud**???!!!!

Good thing I don’t work for the FBI.

Anyway, where exclamation points (and question marks) are concerned, I like to do exactly what everyone tells you not to do if you want to have a job or a life or the respect of people writing articles complaining about too many exclamation points.

Which brings me to my actual point: French people write exclamation points and question marks differently than we do.

Specifically, they leave a space between the end of the sentence and the mark.

Au secours !


Sauve qui peut !

I love that. (I love that!!!!)

Somehow, for me, the space between the words and the mark gives the mark a dimension of poignancy it doesn’t have when it follows directly on the final letter. I don’t know why.

Poignancy or sobriety.

I’ve started leaving spaces, too.

I love that !!!!

Better, right ?

* It’s a really good thing. I once wrote a ticked-off email to a friend complaining about Ed refusing to sign off on my buying a new computer. He was cheap, I said. Then I sent the email to Ed, by mistake. I was in the room when he got it, and I still remember the look on his face.  

And see: More fun with exclamation points, part 2