The semicolon gets a bad rap. Either people despise it—saying that it is not needed in writing at all. (George Orwell was once quoted as saying “I had decided about this time that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one.”) OR….possibly even worse, people use it incorrectly over and over and over and over and over (you get the idea!). The worst misuse (in my humble opinion) is when people use it as a comma—joining two parts of a sentence, rather than two complete sentence. Just random semicolon insertion here and there—whenever they believe that one of the sentence parts is too lengthy to use a comma there. (Sigh…)
Me? I have a semicolon, and I’m not afraid to use it! ? I fall the camp with Abraham Lincoln; I think the semicolon is a “very useful little chap.”
And I teach my students to respect the semicolon in my books and classes. I also may or may not tell them that something like 90% plus of adults in the world do not know how to use a semicolon properly. Thus, if they heed my instructions, they will be in the top ten percent of people in semicolon use. (Hey, it’s something worth attaining!)
As a matter of fact, I don’t just teach my students and curriculum users how to use the semicolon. I include it in my classes and books as an expectation and application in writing.
I do this by including the “add a semicolon to your paper” task in my Checklist Challenge (a task list used by students in just about every project they write in my books).
Here is what the “add a semicolon” task looks like in my Checklist Challenge:
So how DO we become part of my “very estimated” ten percent of adults who can use a semicolon to create a compound sentence?
(Later I will teach you how to become one of the “very estimated” one percent who can use a semicolon to combine series of three or more with internal commas—then you’ll really be “highfalutin”!)
And even more importantly (for my purposes with amazing kids all across the country—I REALLY love kids!), how do we teach our students the proper use of the semicolon?
Stay with me. First the rules—and then a Tricky Trick Sheet for you to use with your amazing learners!
While there are several uses for a semicolon, the one you will use the most is really simple. Semicolons are used to combine two independent clauses (or complete sentences) into a single sentence. That is, they are used to create what grammarians call “compound sentences.”
Example: She likes work; she loves vacation.
The most important thing to remember is that both sides of the semicolon must contain an independent clause (or complete sentence). That means each side must have a subject and a verb and be able to stand on its own.
In addition, be careful not to use a semicolon when you use a coordinating conjunction (such as the word and) to combine two complete sentences. As you already learned, you should use a comma with a cc, not a semicolon with a cc. She likes work, and she loves vacation. (Check out my recent “create a compound sentence with a comma-coordinating conjunction” article with its own Tricky Trick Sheet to use with your students!)
You should only use semicolons to combine two closely related independent clauses.
No: Bambi is a deer; I like casserole.
While this does contain a complete sentence on both sides of a semicolon, it shouldn’t be one sentence (and probably not even in the same paragraph).
The purpose of semicolons is to link ideas together.
Yes: Sue likes work; she loves vacation.
This could be two separate sentences. However, by linking them together with a semicolon, it makes the similarities more obvious.
Your writing will look even more “highfalutin” (can you tell I just looked that word up and found that it is one word, not two, which I think is super cool?) if you use a semicolon to combine two sentences into one sentence CORRECTLY—and with a strong link.
She worked a long day; she slept well. The first part of this sentence gives the cause while the second gives the result. This provides the link between the two clauses.
(Before I forget, you can download and print the Tricky Trick Sheet for this post here!)
There are many relationships you can use a semicolon to express, such as the following:
Before and After: He entered the room nervously; he left excitedly.
Contrasting: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Cause and Effect: She worked a long day; she slept well.
Semicolons can be a great tool to show off your (and your student’s!) advanced writing skills. You probably shouldn’t use more than one or two of this style of sentence in the one essay, but definitely use it. Just be sure both clauses are related in some way and they are both independent clauses. And like I always tell my students…if you don’t know how to do it correctly, don’t do it at all. It is super obvious that someone doesn’t know what they’re doing when they use an advanced punctuation mark incorrectly. It shouts out to readers who do know how to write with them correctly.
(For a complete Compound Sentence Quiz, check out this blog post!)