The Semicolon ( ; )
On the SAT, the Semicolon ( ; ) is used to connect two related independent clauses. The semicolon indicates a pause that is longer than that suggested by a comma ( , ), but shorter than the full stop of a period ( . ).
What is an independent clause?
An independent clause is a string of words that could stand alone as a sentence. It must have a subject and a verb.
Teddy loves stuffed bears.
Alex cooks his brownies with lard.
His collection includes 54 specimens.
They taste great!
Using semicolons to separate independent clauses
In the above examples, a semicolon may be placed between the two related independent clauses.
Teddy loves stuffed bears; his collection includes 54 specimens.
Alex cooks his brownies with lard; they taste great!
The “Before and After Test” for Semicolons
On the SAT, a semicolon is only correct if it is separating two independent clauses. So, if both the first and the second parts of the sentence could stand alone as their own sentences, then the semicolon is correct!
1) Check the part before the semicolon – could it be a solo sentence?
2) Check the part after the semicolon – could it be a solo sentence?
3) If the answers to 1 and 2 are YES, then the semicolon is good to go.
Beware the COMMA SPLICE
WARNING: When you try to connect two independent clauses using just a comma, you create an error known as a comma splice.
WRONG: Teddy loves stuffed bears, his collection includes 54 specimens.
WRONG: Alex cooks his brownies with lard, they taste great!
WRONG: Depp is a versatile actor, Clooney is more hunky.
How to fix a COMMA SPLICE ERROR
Option 1: Change the comma into a period ( . ) or a semicolon ( ; )
Option 2: Add a conjunction When a conjunction is present – such as, and, or, because, while or but – one of the two clauses is converted to a “dependent” or “subordinate” clause. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to know these terms on the SAT, but you do need to know your options for correcting a comma splice).
RIGHT: Teddy loves stuffed bears, and his collection includes 54 specimens.
RIGHT: Because Alex cooks his brownies with lard, they taste great!
RIGHT: Depp is a versatile actor, but Clooney is more hunky.
The Colon ( : )
A Colon ( : ) is sometimes used after a statement that introduces a list, a quotation, an explanation or an example.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address began with the following preamble: “Four score and seven years ago…”
The English language abounds with irregular verbs: drink drank drunk, break broke broken, swim swam swum, shrink shrank shrunken, fall fell fallen, blow blew blown.
The conscious brain controls only some of the body’s functions: while we can exert some control over our breathing rate, we have less control over our heart rate, and, except via lifestyle choices like diet and exercise, we cannot consciously influence the processes of our digestive or immune systems at all.
TOP TIP: What comes before the colon must be an independent clause: it must be able to read as a complete sentence all on its own.
WRONG: Snape advised them to: stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons. (“Snape advised them to” is not a full sentence)
RIGHT: Snape advised them to stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons.
RIGHT: Snape gave them the best advice he could muster: stay up all night, practice spells, and eat bonbons.
The Dash ( – )
One dash ( – ) = Colon ( : )
Just like the rule for colons, what comes before the single dash ( – ) must be an independent clause: it must be able to read as a complete sentence all on its own. (See what we did there? We could have used a long dash instead of that colon)
NOTE: The dash ( – ) is not to be confused with the hyphen ( – ), which has its own rules that are not tested on the SAT.
You were right – he did eat the whole thing.
Learning to ride a unicycle is easy – if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
Two dashes ( – – ) = open/close parentheses ( )
In order for two dashes to be correct, the sentence that surrounds the clause that is being set off – be it a descriptive flourish or a prepositional aside – must be grammatically complete. This rule holds true for evaluating the correctness of parenthetical statements as well as “Comma Clumps.” We can set off non-essential clauses with two commas, whether you like it or not, but we cannot do so with just one.
TOP TIP: Think of the two dashes, two commas or two parentheses as chopping tools that can slice out the non-essential clause. Remove the clause in question and read the sentence again – if the sentence reads through without the clause, then the double punctuation was ok!
Sitting at dinner that night, Finn– usually a talkative chap – refused to answer a single question about his day.
Thriller represented, by most standards of the day, a gigantic leap forward in cinematic storytelling via music video.
Learning to ride a unicycle– a time-consuming endeavor –is easy if you don’t mind a few bumps and bruises.
Mr. Ed was, however, quite insulted by the implication that he was nothing more than a dumb animal.
TOP TIP: Look out for choices that offer you a comma before or a comma after a non-essential clause, but not both. You need both!
WRONG: He learned, consequently that humans were not to be trusted.
WRONG: He learned consequently, that humans were not to be trusted.
RIGHT: He learned, consequently, that humans were not to be trusted.
TOP TIP: If the SAT gives you a choice between commas on both sides of a clause and commas on neither side of a clause, the chances are very good that the NO COMMA choice is correct.
TOP COMMA TIP: Exaggerate the pause – If you’re wondering if a comma is correct, read the sentence through and emphasize the pause the comma creates – if it sounds really weird to your ear, it’s probably wrong.
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