Semicolons are easy, and I always had fun teaching them.
I always began by handing 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 ring.
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 (and changed the capital letter):
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.
Often someone would mumble something about “independent clauses,” and someone else would say that a teacher had told her that a semicolon is a substitute for “because,” and another student would about semicolons in lists. Sometimes a student would ask, 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 students who asked about semicolons in lists were making 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 while students were 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 used to tell students who asked about the requirement that sentences relate to each other. When, I asked, did you ever write a paragraph containing sentences that didn’t relate to each other? And the “because” requirement is just plain silly.
Use semicolons confidently, I would say (but sparingly – one per page is a good rule of thumb). If a teacher ever asked 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.