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Colon Usage on the ACT and SAT

Some grammar concepts appear more-frequently on the ACT English and SAT Writing and Language sections than they do in “real world” writing. Both exams are notorious for over-representing one punctuation mark in particular: the colon. In a typical young adult novel, the colon (“:”) will appear only a handful of times across hundreds of pages. However, a 75-question ACT English or 44-question SAT Writing section can include anywhere from 4 to 6 questions that test colon usage.


Because colons appear sparsely in literature and are rarely needed in high school level writing, many students struggle with colon questions on the ACT and SAT. There are two situations where you can use a colon on the ACT and SAT: when setting up a list and when the second clause describes the first. In both situations the colon fulfills the same function: signaling that more information is to follow. Let’s look at each of these situations now.


  1. Setting up Lists


When introducing a list, the colon signals the point where the list begins:


I bought the following at the supermarket: bread, eggs, and milk.


What did I buy at the supermarket? I bought bread, eggs, and milk.


Note that you cannot use both a colon and “including” or “such as” to set up a list. These words have the same function as a colon, so including both is redundant.


Kroger sells many staple foods, such as bread, eggs, and milk.




            Kroger sells many staple foods: bread, eggs, and milk.




Kroger sells many staple food items, such as: bread, eggs, and milk.


The SAT Writing section in particular likes to include wrong answers with both “including/such” as” and colons. If you are taking the SAT, be especially careful that you choose answer choices that include only one or the other.


  1. Second Clause Describes the First


The other time you can use a colon on the ACT and SAT is when the information following the colon describes or explains something that came before the colon:


My father has a unique talent: the ability to listen to people.


What “unique talent” does my father have? He has the ability to listen.


It’s important to keep in mind that sentences that use colons to set up lists and those that use colons to introduce descriptions or explanations are following the same underlying grammar rule. With that in mind, here is a final example that blurs the line between the two uses of the colon and shows how interrelated they actually are:


While waiting for the SAT class to start, I chatted with some of my fellow students: a football trainer from North Cobb, a soccer player from Sprayberry, and an artist from Kell.


Bonus: Now that you know how colons work on the ACT and SAT, see if you can indentify where we’ve used them in the introduction to this lesson. There are three sentences in the first two paragraphs that follow the ACT/SAT colons rules we’

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