How to Use a Semicolon

Today I’m teaching a workshop titled How To Use a Semicolon: Freshman Comp in 60 Minutes. I’m on a mission to teach my social circle to stop using comma splices and start using the correct form of your/you’re, so I thought I would share a few parts of the workshop with you. Within this post I will doubtlessly make at least one unintentional grammatical error. I invite you to find it and mock me in the comments.

First, let’s talk about semicolons. They look like this: ;

They are used almost exclusively to join complete sentences that can stand alone but relate to one another. For example: I’m excited about the Writing Retreat; I’m hoping to complete my goal of writing 50,000 words.

Often, writers will use a comma to join sentences like the ones above, creating a comma splice. This is not a correct way to join two freestanding sentences.

There’s another way to fix a comma splice besides using a semicolon (or just creating two separate sentences using a period). First, you use a comma, and then you use one of the FANBOYS.

For
And
Nor
But
Or
Yet
So

So the sentence in the example above becomes, “I’m excited about the writing retreat, and I’m hoping to complete my goal of writing 50,000 words.” In addition, you can use a semicolon and a conjunctive adverb such as however or furthermore.

Next let’s talk about commas. You can get out The Bedford Handbook and read for a hundred pages about correct and incorrect comma usage, but you really only need to know a few rules to use commas correctly.

You need to use a comma in the following instances:

– After an introductory clause. For example, “The next day, I woke up early.”
-When separating items in a list. For example, “I’m planning on buying an apple, two oranges, and a bunch of grapes at the grocery store.” The second comma is called an Oxford comma, and it’s optional. Most of the time it’s unnecessary, but sometimes leaving out an Oxford comma can fundamentally change the meaning of a sentence.

-With the FANBOYS (as discussed above) when connecting two independent clauses.
-Before and after parenthetical elements (a clause in a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence) For example, “I went to see Broc, my stepfather, at work.”
-To set off quoted elements. Look at the comma I’ve placed before all of the examples above for an example.

Another thing that often trips up writers (and speakers) is pronoun agreement. Pronouns are the words that we use to refer to individuals or groups: he, him, she, her, I, we, us, you, they. There are two different categories of pronouns: subject pronouns (I, he, she, and we) and object pronouns (her, him, me, and us). Usually pronouns are pretty easy; you just figure out if the person or people you are talking about are the subjects or the objects of the sentence and then you use the matching pronoun. For example, “she gave him a flower,” is very straightforward.

However, many people believe that when talking about themselves and someone else they should always say, “so and so and I.” This is incorrect if you and so and so are in the object position, as in the following example: “Brenna beat Blake and I at Settlers of Catan.” You and Blake are in the object position in this sentence, so it should actually read, “Brenna beat Blake and me at Settlers of Catan.” How do you solve this problem? Remove your friend and your ear catches it. Obviously, Brenna did not beat I at Settlers of Catan.

However, beware of hidden verbs when determining pronoun agreement! Often, writers will insist that, “John is better than me” is correct pronoun usage. It seems like John is in the subject position and you are in the object position, but there is actually a hidden verb: the word am. Because of this, both people in the sentence are in the subject position. Written correctly, this sentence would read, “John is better than I,” or, “John is better than I am.”

Now that we’ve covered pronoun agreement, let’s talk quickly about indefinite pronouns. An indefinite pronoun is a word such as each, everyone, someone, everybody, or nobody. Most people use these words as if they’re plural and pair them with plural pronouns, but that is incorrect. In fact, these words are singular and should always be treated as such.

For example, the sentence, “everyone went to their cars,” is incorrect, because everyone is singular and their is plural. Instead, you could say, “everyone went to his or her car,” or you could change the indefinite pronoun so the sentence read, “the drivers went to their cars.”

Finally, I want to discuss my pet peeve: the difference between your and you’re. This isn’t hard, but screwing it up, in my opinion, makes you sound like an idiot.

You’re is a contraction that means you are. Your is a possessive pronoun that means belonging to you.

Here’s the quickest way to tell which word you need: ask yourself, “Do I mean ‘you are’?” If the answer is yes, use you’re. If the answer is no, use your.

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Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “How to Use a Semicolon

  1. Abbi Traaseth

    Loved this post! I’d never thought about the “John is better than me” mistake, and now I feel like I’ve been a perpetrator. Cool things to remember.

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