Grammar on the SAT often trips people up; if there is one punctuation mark that terrifies everyone, it’s the semicolon. Most people aren’t exactly sure when to use a semicolon. It is rare, but useful punctuation, and it will be used on the SAT. It is important to learn how to use the semicolon so that you can be confident in your writing and on the exam.
Related Independent Clauses
The semicolon should be used to connect two independent clauses that are related. An independent clause is a phrase that could stand on its own. Each clause should have a subject and verb. “We went out to dinner last night; it was our mom’s birthday.” This is a sentence that requires a semicolon. Each phrase could stand on its own, but they are related to one another. It is safe to assume they went out to dinner because it was their mom’s birthday. If the sentence uses a conjunction, such as and, but, for, or, so, for, or yet, you should not use a semicolon. A comma will work instead.
Semicolons can also be used to separate items in a long list. Lists with semicolons often use phrases to describe each item and require additional commas. “Mom told be to go to the grocery store and get milk for breakfast; organic eggs to use in the cake; red, yellow, and green food coloring for the decorations; and a birthday card to give to my sister.” The semicolon allows the reader to clearly understand the separation between each item.
While semicolons should not be used with coordinating conjunctions, they should be used with conjunctive adverbs: therefore, however, and indeed. Grammar Girl offers an excellent tip for remembering the difference: “…small punctuation mark, small words…bigger punctuation, bigger words.”
Colons are often confused with semicolons. Colons should be used to introduce lists or ideas that further explain an independent clause. A colon should only be used after a complete phrase, but doesn’t need to be followed by a complete phrase. The sentence, “Mom gave me a list for the grocery store: milk, eggs, flour, and cheese.” is correct. “Mom told me to go to the store and get: milk, eggs, flour, and cheese.” is an incorrect use of the colon because “Mom told me to go to the store and get” is not a complete phrase. It cannot stand on its own so a colon cannot be used to introduce the list.
The best way to become comfortable with semicolons and colons is to practice using them. Use them in your writing for school, and find practice SAT questions regarding these particular grammar rules. They can be hard to remember when we don’t use them that often. You will become more confident as you employ them more in your writing. Your writing will also become richer as you use these helpful punctuations.
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