In ancient times, a great Chinese leader was born: Confucius.

Confucius is the appositive noun here, and a great Chinese leader is a noun in apposition to it. Can "Confucius" and "a great Chinese leader" be separated like this?

  • Yes, but a comma rather than colons would serve the sentence better. – Ronald Sole Nov 17 '19 at 17:05
  • 4
    @RonaldSole I disagree. The colon is used correctly here and a comma would be wrong. – TypeIA Nov 17 '19 at 17:24
  • @TypeIA I shall reflect on the matter further! – Ronald Sole Nov 17 '19 at 17:54

Actually, appositions typically only occur after the nouns they refer to:

In ancient times, Confucius, a great Chinese leader, was born.

In your sentence, which is a paraphrased version of the one above, the direct noun-apposition relationship is lost, even though the semantic relationship remains the same (that's why we say it's a paraphrased version):

In ancient times, a great Chinese leader was born: Confucius.

In the sentence above, some suspense is added by using a colon, causing the effect of an announcement. Syntactically, I think "Confucius" is the subject complement in a sentence where subject and verb have been elided:

In ancient times, a great Chinese leader was born: (he was) Confucius.

Some grammarians consider this structure to be a concluding appositive. See, for example, this page:

An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames an earlier noun phrase. You can use a colon at the end of a sentence to introduce a concluding appositive:

Why is it that artists like Jake Bugg or “The Tallest Man on Earth” imitate Bob Dylan’s worst feature: nasal singing?

You know there’s one thing I could really use this winter: a remote car-starter.

In the first example, “nasal singing” specifies what the “worst feature” is; in the second example, “a remote car-starter” clarifies what is meant by the “one thing.”

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