Tips From an Anaheim English Tutor: Semicolons


As a private Anaheim tutor, I often see the semicolon as an area of confusion and misunderstanding for my students; they have wild misconceptions of how it is supposed to be used and often believe it is something for only very advanced writing.

Luckily, this confusion is not because the semicolon is a type of punctuation that is overly difficult to use; instead, it is because the semicolon is simply taught late and usually taught briefly.

Semicolons are effective in many situations; they can connect thoughts in a more organic way, and they can avoid ambiguity in some sentences.

Students in early years master punctuation like periods, exclamation points, and question marks; in later years learn to use commas, quotation marks, and apostrophes; and ultimately conclude with some education on semicolons, colons, and em dashes – call TutorNerds today to book you private Anaheim English tutor.

They are taught last, they are used least, and they are given lackluster, limited emphasis; but that is not to say that they should be taught last or that they aren’t useful and easy to learn.

Now, semicolons may seem a little clunkier when they are used one after another in a single paragraph, but they can add some quality variety when used occasionally in your regular writing.  You can see some examples of how a semicolon can be used in sentences above.  Now let’s break down some key points to remember when using a semicolon to help you learn it.  This won’t be a thorough examination of the punctuation and grammar; instead, it will just help you know the main places you can use it and how to use it grammatically correct.

Use it to combine two sentences.

This is the most common use of the semicolon.  It is the main use in the first three sentences of this article and is also how the last sentence in the paragraph above uses it.  You can have transitions or conjunctions also to help connect the sentences, or you can just have the sentences be related by subject.  Use a semicolon when you could use a period and start the next sentence, but you want the two sentences to be more connected and show that they have similar significance.

Check your grammar by replacing it with a period.

If you are using the semicolon to combine two sentences (two independent clauses), then you should be able to replace it with a period and still have to complete sentences.  If you replace it with a period and suddenly it doesn’t make sense, then you used it incorrectly.  Both parts have to be full sentences on their own and not just phrases.

Don’t capitalize the first word.

Because it is used as a period, many students want to capitalize the first letter of the word following a semicolon.  Don’t do this.  It is still just one sentence, don’t add extra capitalization.

Use it to clear up the confusion of too many commas.

This is the less common use.  You can see it in action in the last two sentences of the first paragraph above.  If you have a “list of lists,” then the repetitive commas can be distracting or confusing to read.  For example: “The four teams each have specific colors on their uniforms: red, blue, and yellow, green and gold, black, brown, and orange, and magenta.”  This can be confusing or even ambiguous.  Use semicolons for the big list, and commas for the small ones inside: “The four teams each have specific colors on their uniforms: red, blue, and yellow; green and gold; black, brown, and orange; and magenta.”  You can use a semicolon in place of a comma in a compound sentence if you feel there are too many commas complicating the sentence, like in the last sentence of the first paragraph (this is an uncommon usage of the semicolon).

The first three points will help you get through almost all of your semicolon usage grammatically correctly.  The fourth point is far less common but helpful to know in case you see it.  The best way to get better at using it is to practice; so start adding some semicolons to your writing to create beautiful, complex sentences!

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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