The Colon

August 12, 2009



The colon is needed to complete an unfinished statement or thought.  The colon may be preceded by an independent clause (independent clause goes before the colon) and used in several situations.  Notice that in certain situations, what follows the colon begins with a capital letter.

1)      With a list of items

She checked her luggage again to make sure she had all the items she needed for the conference: two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes. 

BUT, if what precedes the list of items cannot stand alone, meaning that it is not an independent clause, do not use a colon.

Her luggage included two suits, two blouses, and two pairs of shoes.


2)      Linkage of an independent clause with a independent, dependent clause, or phrase which may have one of several relationships: introduction to main idea, cause to effect, general statement to a specific example (only capitalize the first letter after the colon if what follows is a series of two or more sentences)

There is only one thing left for her to do: remembering where she placed the airplane ticket!

Before leaving her house, Sarah did not forget to do three things:  Check that the stove is turned off. Turn off all electronics. Close all windows. 


3)      To introduce a quote (notice the capitalization).

Not only is Shakespeare a famous playwright of romantic plays, he also coined a famous saying about love that is still popular today: “Love is blind.”



A colon may also be used in certain forms of writing.

1)      In an announcement (notice the capitalization)

Attention: Never leave your luggage unattended


2)      In a business letter

Dear Mr. Smith:


3)      In a play, skit, or court testimony

Ted: I have a phone conference with Mr. Cameron this afternoon.

Sarah: Oh, really?! I thought it was cancelled.

Ted: No, it will still take place. 


4)      In the title of a book or movie to set off the main title from the subtitle

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift


5)      In time

9:30 pm or 21:30

The Comma

August 9, 2009


When learning a language, people always think about learning the grammar, the pronunciation, and the vocabulary to improve their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.  In fact, this is what most language tests focus on.  With regards to improving one’s writing, punctuation is very important but often neglected. 

In the next several entries, let us take a look at some of the punctuation marks in the English language and their usage.  Believe it or not, punctuating properly could help you win more points on the next writing task!

Let’s start with the comma!  A comma marks a short pause in speech and is used for clarification purposes.    

1.                  Separate items in a series which has three or more items.  “She was commended for her hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the job.”  While some may argue that the last comma (the one after ‘dedication’) is not necessary, the presence of this serial comma or Oxford comma helps readability, especially when the items mentioned are complex or lengthy. My recommendation is to always include this comma as anything that helps your reader will mean a higher score for you!  (You may find that this comma is not present in newspaper articles.) 

2.                  Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, yet, for, nor, or).  “She has been asked to translate for the company’s clients many times, but she was not receiving a bilingual bonus for it.” 

3.                 Before direct speech.

She said to her clients, “We greatly appreciate your business.”

4.                 In non-defining/non-restrictive relative clauses.

“The people, who had lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  (Meaning: Everyone in line had lined up since last night and was able to purchase the new video game.)  Notice that sometimes the ‘who’ may be missing. “The people, lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  Contrast this with: “The people who lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Only the people who had lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.)

5.                 To set off an introductory phrase or an interjection.

“Related to your job performance, we believe you deserve a promotion.”

“We believe, May, that your job performance should be commended.” 

This also goes for greetings, like in an email message:

Hi, May (although we often see “Hi May” instead, as people treat it like “Dear May”)

Thank you, May

Good morning, May

6.               To separate descriptive adjectives. (See my entry on Order of Adjectives.)

There are three instances when a comma is needed.  First, when adjectives are repeated for the purpose of intensification (‘big, big project’).  Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning and not incompatible with each so that if one is missing, the overall meaning is not lost (‘charming, attractive manager’).   Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence (‘expensive, French black suit’). 

7.                  To set off a contrasting phrase.

“It was her dedication, not her charm, which won her supervisor’s support.”

8.        For typographical reasons.

With dates – “She started working for the company on December 1, 2004.”  Without a date, the comma is not needed. “She started working for the company in December 2004.”

With place names – “The company is located in Santa Monica, California, a city near the coast.” 

With numbers – “The net worth of the company is $1,000,000.”

With name and suffix (although the comma may often be omitted) – “The president of the company is John Smith, Jr.”


There may be other instances where a comma is appropriate to avoid confusion.  However, do not overdo it either! 

Order of Descriptive Adjectives

July 28, 2009


A big red balloon?  A red big balloon?  Why is the former correct and the latter wrong?

English allows for an indefinite number of adjectives to occur before a noun, although normally no more than three are used.   For descriptive adjectives which appear before nouns, there is a rather fixed ordering although this is not absolute. 

Here is the order based on category:

Opinion-Size-Shape-Condition-Age-Color-Origin/Material (Noun)

Here are some of the common adjectives under each category:

Opinion- ugly, pretty, beautiful, poor, attractive, nice, sweet, precious, smart, childish, mature, charming, boring, athletic

Size- large, big, small, huge, little, tiny, short, tall, fat, skinny, thin, long

Shape- round, triangular, rectangular, irregular

Condition- broken, old, new, rare, clean, messy, expensive, cheap

Age- young, old, middle-aged, eighteen-year-old

Color- blue, white, black, red, etc.

Origin- English, French, Chinese, American, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese, German

Material- wooden, plastic, metal, glass, paper, cotton


            the smart skinny teacher

            the tall Chinese boy

            the eighteen-year-old Chinese boy

            the tall, eighteen-year-old Chinese boy

Notice that adjectives which describe origin and material may be interchangeable. For example, both ‘a wooden French door’ and ‘a French wooden door’ are acceptable.

Related to adjective ordering there are two frequently asked questions.  First, when is and used?  Second, when is a comma needed and where?

For the first question, when there are two adjectives that are vastly different but from the same category which describe the same noun, then an ‘and’ is used in between these two adjectives.  Example-

            red and white scarf

            white and red scarf

Indeed, this seems to be most applicable for adjectives in the color category.

For the second question, there are three situations when a comma is needed.  First, when an adjective is repeated for the purpose of intensification, a commas is needed, like ‘tiny, tiny stars’ and ‘huge, huge elephant’. 

Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning or not incompatible with each other, so that either one could be omitted without a lost of the overall meaning, a comma is needed between them.  For example, ‘tiny, little stars’ and ‘charming, attractive waitress’.

Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence.  Usually the comma would be placed after the first adjective. An example would be ‘huge, grey African elephant’.  Besides this, when there are three adjectives, the above rules are still followed, for example ‘huge, grey and white elephant’.