Every piece of equipment on the tarmac had some failure: some boarding stairs missed some stairs, some carts had no wheels, and some aircraft had no engines.

There was some disorder in the class: some students were chatting, some were doing the homework, and yet some were sleeping at their desks.

In general, people were not happy: some were merely stern, some were resentful and some were almost mad.

Mammals are those animals that feed their young with milk: cows, tigers, dogs, rabbits.

What would be the idiomatic term for each of the statement preceding the colon (in the examples above, each such statement is put in italics) and for the each of the following phrase separated by commas (put in bold)?

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    Most terminology isn't "idiomatic" but specialized. It would be on the tarmac, BTW. Dec 30, 2018 at 11:10
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    Also, what is gained by regarding those specific examples of failure as "members of a set"? A grammarian might well approach them as a series of clauses, not as a set. Dec 30, 2018 at 12:12
  • "Member of a set" looks perfect to me. How would you name the phrase before the colon (Every piece of equipment had some failure)? "The descriptor of a set"? "Set definer"? Anything else? BTW, thanks for the "on the tarmac" correction!
    – brilliant
    Dec 30, 2018 at 13:17
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    This has nothing to do with sets, regardless of your sense that it fits perfectly. The first clause is a general statement ("had some failure") and the succeeding clauses are examples of specific failures. You could just as easily overlay an ontology onto it, abstract class, class instances. Whether that's a productive approach when dealing with statements is questionable. Dec 30, 2018 at 13:39

3 Answers 3


It depends on what you have after the colons! If you have a clause, you call it a clause, and if a list, then a list! Because a semicolon is put between two main clauses, or a clause and a list

So, in all the cases you mentioned, I'd call it as clauses (italicized), and a list (bolded).

Match them with OxfordDictionary's examples (the same link):

Example of the clause

That is the secret of my extraordinary life: always do the unexpected.

Example of the list

The price includes the following: travel to London, flight to Venice, hotel accommodation, and excursions.

I, especially when having the other term, may personally avoid calling it Syntactical-descriptive just not to sound too formal!

Also, if you go by Wikipedia, it has some ambiguity of whether to use it for numbers, hours, a location of a book verse and so on! OxfordDictionary, on the other hand, has clarified it.


I was not aware of any specific term for the independent clauses preceding the colons in your examples, and my search for such a term was not successful. One could reasonably call these "introductory clauses" or anything similar, but I have not found any one term that is considered canonical. However, there is a term for this specific use of the colon.


As for the individual items following the colon, one could call them "items in a list", "elements in a set", "phrases in a series", or anything else similar. Again, there does not appear to be one single definitive term.


There were problems at every turn

has the meaning that everywhere one looked there was a problem

each piece of equipment was deficient.

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    This would be good as a comment but it's not an answer my question.
    – brilliant
    Dec 30, 2018 at 13:22

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