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.

How to score a 34 on ACT English

A while back, I mentioned my ACT student, the one who was scoring at the 85th percentile on English when we began work and had reached the 98th percentile just one month later.

Not long after she took the June ACT, we had good news: her practice scores held! On English, she scored 34 (out of 36).

From the 85th percentile to the 98th in 1 month.

Her June reading score, on the other hand, wasn’t as high as I think it should be. On practice tests, she was scoring 32; on the real thing, she scored 30 (89th percentile, presumably). I’m hoping she’ll reach 32 in September.

That said, her weakest reading score put her at the 66th percentile, so technically her reading gain was higher than her gain on writing.

Eureka moment

“M” made most of her gains in the second two weeks of our work together.

I’ve become a pretty effective classroom teacher, I think, at least judging by my students’ results on exit exams. But I’ve been teaching the 5-paragraph essay, not ACT/SAT reading and language, and I have a semester to work with my college students, not 4 weeks. So with M., I was feeling my way.

Two weeks in, we were pretty much exactly where we had been on Day One–and this with a highly intelligent, focused, and disciplined student. A lot of teens don’t do test-prep homework, and they can be scattered when it comes to keeping appointments. But M. did all her homework and showed up, and still we weren’t getting anywhere.

I was worried.

Then, pretty much from one day to the next, everything turned around.

On the reading front, I figured out Debbie Stier’s approach, which she developed while tutoring her daughter, and began using it religiously with M. (Debbie had actually explained her technique to me going in, but I hadn’t understood the essential feature.)

That was a game changer. M’s scores on practice sections jumped up and stayed up.

On English, I had a eureka moment: sentence slots!

Sentence slots, clauses, phrases!

I needed to stop teaching commas and start teaching grammar.

That was the breakthrough.

As soon as I began filling M. in on subjects and finite verbs, I discovered that she had no idea what a clause was. She didn’t know what phrases were, either, and had once inserted a comma in between a preposition and its object. (That’s another issue–punctuating-by-pause–that I’ll get to in another post.)

She’s a native speaker; her spoken grammar is perfect.

But nobody uses punctuation when they talk, and to use punctuation properly you have to know where clauses begin and end.

You have to know where phrases and sentence slots begin and end, too.

I’ll close with a terrific paragraph from Ed Vavra’s KISS site:

My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970’s, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. . . . My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas — “He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. “We can’t,” she told me, “identify clauses.”

Using Europe in the Modern World for SAT/ACT tutoring

Just before Christmas, I sent a copy of Europe in the Modern World to my friend Debbie Stier — Perfect Score Project — and she’s been using it with her students ever since.

Very exciting!

So far, our exercises are working for her students (and for Debbie) the way we hoped: they explain why the right answer is right.

Debbie says that a lot of the College Board explanations are too vague to be actionable. They’re not wrong, but they don’t leave students any less likely to make the same mistake again.