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Given:

John was causing obstruction: the act of preventing passage or progress.

Given that the clause after the colon is elaborating on the head noun 'obstruction', does this mean that the entire sentence is a noun phrase?

If not, are any circumstances where ':' forms a noun phrase?

Does the same reasoning apply to semicolons (';')?

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    A colon can be used between independent clauses when the second explains or illustrates the first. But as you've correctly pointed out, the act of preventing passage or progress isn't a "clause" - it's just a noun phrase. Standard orthography in English (and most other languages, I'd have thought) is to enclose that "parenthetical" defining noun phrase in brackets, OR just separate it from the preceding statement with a dash. A colon or semicolon is non-standard orthography in such contexts. Oct 1, 2019 at 16:59

2 Answers 2

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John was causing obstruction: the act of preventing passage or progress.

The sentence isn't a noun phrase. The part after the colon is a noun phrase, and not a clause.

The part after the colon is a fragment. Consider a simpler example.

I love one kind of animal: cats.

It's fine. Not every utterance has to be a sentence. The sentence ends with "animal". And then there is a single noun, which we understand to be the type of animal he loves. It is just a noun, and not a sentence, but we understand the meaning. It doesn't need a verb.

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The colon has a number of uses, one of which is to elaborate on the previous statement, such as this from "The Devil's Dictionary" by Ambrose Bierce:

CRITIC, n. : A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.

In this case, yes, you can say what follows the colon is a noun phrase (though I'm not sure why that matters). In other cases, the elaboration can be a complete sentence:

The most important message of the film is this: You can't ever really go home again.

The semicolon is different; it is used to join together two complete sentences that could otherwise be separated by a period (as in this sentence). However, in creative writing the semicolon is sometimes used as an alternative to the comma, as in this quote from "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut:

Only I was going to kindergarten; Frank was going to junior high; and Father was going to work on the atom bomb.

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  • In your first example, would the noun phrase be [CRITIC, n,: A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him] or would it be just [A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him], what about the second example?
    – John
    Oct 1, 2019 at 17:11
  • @John as in your question, the part following the colon might be called a noun phrase (or possibly something more specific). As I said, it's kind of a trivial question since only linguists really care about these kind of labels. The rest of us just speak English.
    – Andrew
    Oct 1, 2019 at 18:18

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