Today, I want to go over the needlessly mystified concept of semicolons(;).  Most people (including myself) never use semicolons, and only know it for taking up valuable real estate on a keyboard.  In fact, when I first start working with students and we are discussing relative strengths and weaknesses and areas the students feel they need to improve, semicolons are often specifically mentioned as an example of something they don’t understand.

Well fear not.  The rules for semicolons are easy to understand and the strategy for attacking these questions is very straightforward.

Before we get into semicolons specifically I just want to briefly discuss why I devote the first lesson with students to the writing section (or English for the ACT).  This section, which covers grammar and english usage, is very learnable, and within a coupe of hours you can cover virtually every type of question asked on the section and the specific strategies for answering these questions.  Everybody can do well on writing, so it is a good way to get momentum going for a test prep course.

Anyways, all you need to know about semicolons for the SAT is they are the same thing as periods.  They separate independent clauses (things that could be sentences on their own) and the strategy for determining whether to use a semicolon is therefore very straightforward:

                    1. Look at the phrase before the semicolon.  Could that be a sentence by itself?

                2. Look at the phrase after the semicolon.  Could that be a sentence by itself?

If the answer to both of these questions is yes, then a semicolon is appropriate.

Below is an easy example of a semicolon in action.

Tom was very nervous about the performance; his father reassured him and gave him the confidence he needed.

  1. Could the phrase “Tom was very nervous about his performance” be a sentence by itself? Yes
  2. Could the phrase “His father reassured him and gave him the confidence he needed” be a sentence by itself? Yes

Two independent clauses, so a semicolon works.

Easy enough, right?  Now, let’s change the sentence slightly and see if a semicolon still works.

Tom was very nervous about the performance; but his father reassured him and gave him the confidence he needed.

1. Could the phrase “Tom was very nervous about his performance” be a sentence?  Still yes.

2. Could the phrase “But his father reassured him and gave him the confidence he needed” be a sentence by itself?  NO.

Now, that second phrase can’t stand alone as a sentence, so we can’t use a semicolon (we would use a comma instead).

A few important points here, that tie into strategy for the writing/english section as a whole.

  1. The strategies for writing are easy to apply, but you must be patient and deliberate in using them.  Many of my students know this rule, but don’t take the time to read the entire phrase.  This is true of many other types of grammar questions.  The good news is that if you take your time and stay disciplined with these strategies you’ll be golden.
  2. Many of these tests in the writing section are easier to apply if you imagine saying them out loud. Things that are wrong in English tend to sound wrong, so rather than simply reading sentences it is often helpful to say them in your head.  When I was in high school this was really the only strategy I employed on writing, and it didn’t fail me.  Granted, some people have a harder time doing this, and that is why we also learn these question-specific strategies, but I am a big believer in the ‘what sounds right is probably right’ test.  There are one or two specific instances where this intuition might fail you, and I will likely do a blog post about those at some point.  (I guess I should also note that some test prep tutors disagree with me on the value of this rudimentary strategy; they’re welcome to write their own blog post).

Tldr: semicolons = periods.  There are some tricks that you can use to your advantage from the fact that these two things are identical (which comes up with transition words as well) but I think I’m going to have to save that discussion for another day.

Till next time!