Do you get colons (:) and semicolons (;) confused? Although they both can be used after an independent clause (a complete thought with a subject and verb), colons can be followed by a word, phrase, or clause whereas semicolons are followed by another independent clause.
When you think about when to use a colon, you probably know that colons should be used after an independent clause that sets up a list.
EXAMPLE: The dentist gave me a plastic bag with the following items: a toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss.
Although this use has not been tested on any recent ACT exams, it has been tested on a couple of SAT exams.
EXAMPLE: During exercise class, we worked two parts of our lower body: the muscles in our thighs, which are in the upper leg, and our calves, which are in the lower leg.
More commonly, colons are used on both exams to set up words, phrases, and clauses that aren’t lists but still further explain information provided in the independent clause before them.
Word: Team success depends on one important component: cooperation.
Phrase: Too much training can have an unintended result: pulled muscles.
Clause: My grandmother offered me one piece of advice: you should always be kind to others.
It’s important to know that if the information before the colon isn’t an independent clause, then it can’t be followed by a colon.
If you sneeze: cover your mouth.
Also, colons can’t directly follow a sentence’s main verb.
What I want to know is: when is the test?
Colons can, however, follow a verb that’s part of a phrase or clause.
She gives me what I need: a friend.
The best way to get more familiar with when colons should and shouldn’t be used on the SAT and ACT exams is to practice the same types of punctuation questions you will see on these tests. Use released tests provided by the College Board and ACT or practice online with exam-like questions at websites like UWorld College Prep.