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You and the semicolon Yet another commonly misused punctuation mark is the semicolon. It continues to mystify legends and scholars alike.
There are some differing arguments on when the semicolon can be used, but I'll detail what you--the average writer--need to know.
A semicolon separates would could otherwise be two separate sentences. Again, while it can be used in other instances, particularly when making lists, it's most likely that you will only need it to separate two complete sentences.
Let's look at this example:
The pillow barked at me. It seemed to be sending a message.
Note that the above contains two separate, complete sentences. It can be rewritten with a semicolon as follows:
The pillow barked at me; it seemed to be sending a message.
Notice the above sentence does not have the word "and" in between the words, "me" and "it." A semicolon shouldn't precede the words and, but, for, nor, if, so, yet. (Another day I'll explain what those words are and how they should be used).
The easiest way to figure out if you are using a semicolon correctly is to ask if you could replace it with a period and have two separate, complete sentences. If the answer is no, you shouldn't be using the semicolon.
Try the following exercise for semicolon practice:
Instructions: Three of these five sentences contain an incorrect semicolon. What ones are incorrect?
1. It's raining men; alleluia.
2. And I had the sense to recognize; that I don't know how to let you go.
3. I can't stand to fly; I'm not that naive.
4. I've never been so alone; and I've never been so alive.
5. Sometimes; when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul.
Answers 2, 4 and 5 are incorrect. Confused as to why? email me.
Exception to the "safe" entry (below) One of the quirks of the English language is all the "exceptions" to the rules. It makes our language difficult to learn as compared to other ones. I admire foreigners who master it; it can't be easy.
There's an exception to the below rule on adverbs, and it applies to the verb, "to be." (The forms of "to be" include, "I am, you are, they were, she is, etc. Send a comment if you want me to list all of them). So, you wouldn't write, "She is ("is" is the verb) quickly." You'd write, "She is quick." But you WOULD write, "Walk quickly."
Still confused? Check back for more tidbits on verbs. If there's something special you'd like to see on here for a lesson, comment or email :)
Please don't drive "safe" How many people have you heard admonish, "Drive safe!"? Perhaps you're even guilty of saying this. It's a common phrase, and it's incorrect.
I'll assume you know what verbs are (denote action). Well, the word "drive" is a verb. Verbs must be modified by something called adverbs. Most adverbs end in "ly." Don't worry--I won't get too technical on you!
Would you ever say, "Walk care"? No. You'd say, "Walk carefully." Carefully is the adverb that modifies the verb walk. OK, someone mentioned that actually, I should have used "walk careful" as an example (since careful, and not care, is the root), but it was necessarily to use "care" to demonstrate just how blatently wrong it is to not just adverbs ;)
It doesn't matter if it "sounds OK." While most people say these things incorrectly, it's much worse to write them incorrectly. Even so, you'll sound smarter if you can remember to start using adverbs. The next time you warn a friend who is going out in a storm, be the genuis you are, and say, "Drive safely!"
The comma is not your friend OK, it's time to unveil one of my biggest grammar pet peeves: incorrect comma usage. I see so many "comma happy" people, but I do understand for I, too, was once comma happy.
In later lessons I will detail what is proper comma usage, but for now you need to know two very important things:
1) You are most likely OVERUSING commas.
2) A comma is not designed to indicate a "pause" in a sentence.
Let's explore number two just a little further. Let's say you have an online blog, and your blog is like a "stream of consciousness" blog in that you write as you THINK. Chances are, your blog is full of way too many commas. You put the commas in there whenever you are pausing in thought, or because it "seems" good to put a comma in a particular spot. Admit it: you couldn't really give a real English rule as to why you used said commas.
Commas are incredibly helpful little marks, but even the most-talented writers and those with obnoxiously high IQs overuse or inproperly use commas. It's easy to do, and it's difficult to fix until you know the rules of comma usage.
Until I post my lessons on the rules of comma usage, I challenge you to stop using commas for the love of God. The exception to this challenge is if you can "justify" the comma usage with a grammar rule. For instance, many people know that you are to put a comma in a sentence right before you start a quotation of a person.
She said, "I don't know where to go."
Your English teacher may have taught you to use a comma in the above instance, and that's perfectly correct! But please keep in mind that there are many jaded English teachers out there who don't know how to use commas themselves.
Also, one other caveat: the example I used of a blog may be a bad one, for my own personal blog is full of editing no-nos. So my challenge applies to writing you may do for school or work. :)
Mareesa Orth is GrammarGal. Her journalism degree from the University of Missouri is in editing and design. Mareesa works for an independent book publisher and has edited numerous books, covers, webpages, brochures, and other knicknacks. While graphic design is her first love (though you wouldn't know it from this simple blogger page. ;), her anal-retentive side seeks ways to educate the world on English language usage.
In addition to the tips offered here, Mareesa is a personal editing and writing consultant. If you need a business memo polished, a research paper edited (no, she will not write your paper for you), or simply
want some one-on-one lessons in grammar, email for a quote. Rates are extremely reasonable and competitive.