Semicolons are easy, and it’s fun to teach them because students are always amazed at how quickly they learn how to use them.
Yesterday I taught a class how to use a semicolon. I began, as I always do, by passing out strips of paper and asking everyone to write a short, simple sentence. I put one on the board myself as an example: Mary heard the doorbell rang.
Then I asked everyone to write another sentence, equally short, related to the first one. Mine was She went to the door.
Then I put the two sentences together with a semicolon:
Mary heard the doorbell rang; she went to the door.
Students inserted semicolons and shared the sentences they’d written. I summarized what they’d learned: A semicolon is like a period, but it’s followed by a lower-case letter. And then I told them we were finished with semicolons.
Gasps from all corners of the room. It’s that easy? Well, yes.
And someone mumbled something about “independent clauses,” someone said that a teacher had told her that a semicolon is a substitute for “because,” and another student asked about semicolons in lists. Another student asked, with some indignation, why I had not emphasized that the two sentences joined by a semicolon had to be related to each other.
Shucks. Why make something simple sound so difficult?
I never talk about “independent clauses.” If I were teaching English majors, I would fine them a dollar every time they said “independent clause.” Stick to sentence–it’s a user-friendly word that’s much easier to understand.
The student who asked about semicolons in lists made a good point. (Here’s an example: The following students won awards: Joe Smith, from Boston; Carol Jones, from Miami; and Richard Jenkins, from Chicago.)
But why complicate things now, while students are learning the basics of punctuation? If I insisted that they learn how to use commas in lists with parenthetical items, many students would be so intimidated that they’d never use a semicolon again.
Here’s what I told the students who asked about the requirement that sentences relate to each other. When, I asked, do you ever write a paragraph containing sentences that don’t relate to each other? And the “because” requirement is just plain silly.
Use semicolons confidently, I said (but sparingly–one per page is a good rule of thumb). If a teacher asks why you chose to put the semicolon in a particular place, say that you had a gut feeling. Or a vision. Or something.
Semicolons are lovely punctuation marks; they add elegance to your writing. Don’t make them harder than they need to be.