How to use a colon

For some reason, colons have a tendency to make people nervous. There’s really no reason for concern, though, because there are only three things you need know in order to use them flawlessly.


Colons can be used in two situations:


1) Before a list

New England consists of six states: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.


2) Before an explanation

Correct: I spoke to my supervisor, and this is what she said: I should come in early tomorrow morning in order to make up for the shift that I missed last night. 

The first half of the sentence sets up the information after the colon, which explains what the supervisor said. 

 

Let’s look at a slightly more challenging example.

Correct: The Greek goddess Athena was a complex figure: she was a patron of the arts and music, but she also was a warrior who was typically depicted as wearing armor and carrying a shield.

Again, the second half of the sentence expands on the first — it explains why Athena was a complex figure. 

 

Now, there is an additional requirement:

The sentence before a colon must be able to stand on its own as a complete thought. 

For instance, in the second example above, the statement The Greek goddess Athena was a complex figure is both a grammatically complete sentence and a statement that makes sense on its own. 

 

In contrast, we cannot say this: 

Incorrect: The Greek goddess Athena was: a complex figure. 

Even though The Greek goddess Athena was is technically a complete sentence because it contains a subject (The Greek goddess Athena) and a verb (was), it does not make sense as an independent thought. 

 

One more example. 

Incorrect: In recent years, forest fires have become: an increasing threat in the United States and abroad.

Because In recent years, forest fires have become does not make sense as an independent statement, it should not come before a colon.

Correct: In recent years, forest fires have become an increasing threat: they burn earlier and later in the year, both in the United States and abroad. 

Because In recent years, forest fires have become an increasing threat does make sense on its own, it can come before a colon.

 

Prepositions and prepositional phrases

Prepositions are location and time words. They indicate where things are, where they’re going, and when they happen(ed).

Common Prepositions: to, from, for, at, by, with, between, about, in, on, around

Prepositional phrase – phrase that begins with a preposition. Prepositional phrase can contain nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, but they cannot contain verbs.

Examples:

-At my house

-During the long movie

-Between you and me

-To my older sister

If you’re not sure whether a word is a preposition, see if you can place it right before a noun at the end of a sentence. For example, you can say, My friend and I went to the movie because to is a preposition, but you cannot say, My friend and I went when the movie because when is not a preposition.

In addition, one of the most frequent questions students ask me is how they can figure out where prepositional phrases begin and end. The answer: a prepositional phrase begins at the preposition and ends right before the verb (if there is one).

In the following sentences, the prepositional phrases are underlined. Note that a sentence can easily contain multiple prepositional phrases back to back, and that a prepositional phrase can occur anywhere in a sentence.

-The stack of books is sitting on the kitchen table.

-One of the stories on the front page of the newspaper discusses the upcoming elections in great detail.

-The train is crowded with people on their way home from school and work.

-Sitting on the table are a peach and an apple.

Prepositional phrases are frequently inserted between subjects and verbs on both the SAT and the ACT in order distract from disagreements, so whenever you see a combination of singular and plural verbs in answer choices, crossing out prepositional phrases can help you identify errors.

Shorter is better

This one of the key rules to know for both the ACT English Test and the SAT Writing and Language Test. Both of these tests place a strong emphasis on conciseness — namely, that short, clear constructions are preferable to long, wordy ones. When you are given a phrase rewritten several ways, all of which are grammatically correct, the shortest one will virtually always be right.

As a result, you should always start by checking the shortest answer and consider the longer ones only if it clearly does not fit.

Note that this rule applies only to general non-grammar question, NOT ones that require you to give a sentence a particular focus (e.g.” Which of the following most effectively emphasizes the author’s surprise at discovering a frog in her living room?”)

While some incorrect answers will simply include extra, unnecessary words, many others are incorrect because they are redundant.

Example #1

Incorrect: I decided to ask my mother a question, which required an answer.

Correct: I decided to ask my mother.

The only thing that one can ask is a question; and a question, by definition, requires an answer, so the inclusion of this information is unnecessary.

Example #2

Incorrect: In 2016, a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, and the scientists who study aurora borealis—the northern lights—were unaware and did not know that it was even there.

Incorrect: In 2016, a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, and the scientists who study aurora borealis—the northern lights—were unaware that it was even there.

By definition, people who are “unaware” do not know something, so it is unnecessary to include both.

 

Comma splices and how to fix them

Comma splice = two sentences separated by a comma

Rule = comma splices are always wrong

The comma splice is one of the most frequently tested errors on both SAT Writing and ACT English. Comma splices trump all other stylistic issues, which means that no matter how good a sentence sounds otherwise, it cannot be correct if it contains one.

Note that the most common tip-off for this error is “comma + pronoun” (he, she, it, they).

Comma Splice: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78, she achieved fame as an artist.

 

The four most common ways to fix comma splices are as follows:

 

1) Add a coordinating conjunction after the comma

Coordinating Conjunctions: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

Correct: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78, but she achieved fame as an artist.

 

2) Replace the comma with a period or semicolon

A period/semicolon can be added alone or, more commonly, a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless, moreover) can be placed after the period or semicolon in order to make the relationship between the clauses clear.

Correct: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78; she achieved fame as an artist.

Correct: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78; nevertheless, she achieved fame as an artist.

Correct: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78. However, she achieved fame as an artist.

 

3) Make one of the clauses dependent by adding a subordinating conjunction (although, because, while)

Correct: Although Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78, she achieved fame as an artist.

 

4) Add a participle  

Correct: Anna Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses only began painting at the age of 78, achieving fame as an artist.

 

Tip: whenever you see answer choices that include a semicolon, a period, and a comma + and/but, you can automatically eliminate all of those options. They are exactly equivalent to one another, and you will never be asked to choose between two equally correct answers.

Semicolon = Period

I find that a lot of people are afraid of semicolons. Either that, or they sort of kind of think they might have an idea about how to use them… From what I have observed, semicolons are probably the most misunderstood punctuation mark. And that’s very unfortunate because they’re actually very simple to use. They also show up on the SAT and ACT English a whole lot.

Here’s the rule: semicolon = period

That’s it. Seriously. Wherever you can use a period, you can also use a semicolon.

Easy, right?