Grammar Wednesday!

Today’s topic comes to us via request from Derek: the proper use of colons and semicolons! (aren’t you excited!?)

Semicolons are most often used to connect two closely related independent clauses:

I could have gone on and on about the fund raiser; the charity it benefits is near and dear to my heart.

It’s too late to back out now; I’ve already given my promise that I’d be there.

In both cases, one can put a period where the semicolon resides. Using the semicolon, though, helps to reinforce that the two ideas connected by it are very closely related.

The other use of the semicolon -though one I admit to not using very often- is to separate related thoughts in a series when one or more of those thoughts contains an internal comma:

There are several reasons why Jess should go back to college: she’s gone as far as she can go in her current job; because of her experience in the business world, she’s already got a lot of good time management skills; and, at thirty five, she knows what she really wants to be when she grows up.

The colon, on the other hand, is used in several different ways:

To introduce items in a list – note that the words that come before the colon must be a complete sentence:

The songs sung by the choir were varied: Christmas carols, show tunes, and commercial jingles.

To introduce a quotation if it follows a complete sentence:

My grandmother had a favorite saying when my mother complained about my father: You get what you settle for.

To introduce an appositive at the end of a sentence (though I almost never use this, myself):

I opened it: my finger! (nods to Carol Burnett here…)

Of course, to separate a title from a subtitle and to separate hours from minutes in expressions of time:

When Beanie wrinkles her nose, she looks like Kira from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

My brother-in-law’s flight lands today at 5:05.

Make sense? Let me know if you’ve got any questions; this one stymies a lot of people: myself included!

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9 Comments

Filed under Grammar

9 responses to “Grammar Wednesday!

  1. Turns out I often use semi-colons where colons are called for. I don’t know what an apositive is and I don’t understand that example.

  2. Sorry – I should have been more clear. Let me explain!

    An appositive is a noun that renames another noun right beside it. In the example I gave – which, admittedly, may only work if someone knows the Carol Burnett sketch – “it” is renamed by the appositive “my finger.” (the sketch was of Burnett with a wicked headache, and the trials and tribulations she went through just to get an aspirin. The quote I used as an example was the result of her trying to pry the bottle open and slicing her finger in the process.)

    In the sentence “I opened the door and was faced with my worst fear: my mother!” “mother” is the appositive for “my worst fear.” Usually, appositives are set apart by commas, as in “The football player, a big, hairy linebacker, complained that there wasn’t enough gravy on the buffet line.” “big, hairy linebacker” is the appositive for “football player.”

    Get it?

  3. Oh…oh…I just came in via TenseTeacher and I am all a flutter! I am an 8th grade English and Literature teacher!

  4. WELCOME! I LOVE new readers! Spend some time here and tell me what you think! I’m off to find YOUR blog now…

  5. Laurie

    That makes sense, but what is a comma splice?

  6. Laurie, a comma splice is when a comma is used to join two complete sentences. Example:

    I went to the doctor on Tuesday, I had a headache that just wouldn’t go away.

    Very often, a semicolon can cure comma splices. Usually, though, either a period or a coordinating conjunction (and, but, because) does the trick.

  7. Organic Mama

    Often, colons and semicolons can correct both comma splices and the dreaded fused sentence. When I teach the sentence and we get past the concept of a complete thought, students pay more attention to fused sentences like:
    “James used crutches to get around his apartment his broken leg was a cumbersome nuisance.”

  8. I stole the holiday meme off your Blue Door site. I’m too lazy to do a real post. ;-)

    **Cass**

  9. Pingback: Grammar Wednesday « A Teacher’s Education

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