Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Put Your Hands in the Air and Step Away from the Semi-Colon

One of the things about the sandwich method that makes me want to scream and tear out other people's hair* is that it fools writers into believing that there is only one type of essay. While sandwich theory is relatively sound in essence (many good papers are structured sandwich-fashion, with an introduction and conclusion bracketing a number of body paragraphs), in reality, Devotees of the Sacred Sandwich often rely so heavily on the formula that they don't know how to react when asked to write a type of essay that does not work as a sandwich. These people then panic, break down, and write off-topic essays.

You do not want to write off-topic essays. Your markers will bludgeon you with C minuses if you write off-topic essays. Write on-topic essays. They are much prettier and will not enrage your profs.

For the next little while, I'm going to be dealing with the modes of essay-writing: the different varieties of essay that you may eventually have to try, whether you like it or not. You should note, however, that in a sense, these "modes" are artificial categories. A professor may ask you specifically for a cause-and-effect essay or a process paper, but she is just as likely simply to hand you a topic and expect you to work out for yourself what kind of essay you need to write. Generally, only first-year writing instructors demand certain modes. These instructors also may neglect to explain that the modes can be mixed together or conflated. The categories are nice to have, but don't mistake them for rigid, unbreakable rules.

From this point onwards, I am also going to be bringing more external sources into the blog. I can't keep making up stupid little essays about The Fellowship of the Ring forever; I want to show you some examples from published papers. Unfortunately, I don't have permission to reproduce any of these papers in full unless they are no longer under copyright. I can quote short passages from them (for the purpose of critical comment) as long as I include a bibliography.** I shall therefore be providing examples at the sentence or paragraph level rather than the essay-as-a-whole level.

I'll be dealing with the first of these modes--the descriptive--in my next post. I want to save a whole post for the descriptive mode because I expect I'll be doing quite a lot of yelling about observation and learning to describe what is actually there instead of what you think you see. However, never fear; I have some ranting for you this time as well. I hereby bring you another grammatical interlude, this one dealing with:


That felt good. That felt very good. Let me do it again:


Why am I writing "the semi-colon"**** in great big bright red capital letters?

I am trying to impart to you the importance of this misused and much maligned piece of punctuation! I am trying to return the semi-colon to the position of greatness it deserves! I am mad with power because I can turn my words different colours and make them all pretty! Insert evil laugh here!

I have had the following conversation, almost word for word, with several different first-year classes:

Me: What role does a comma have in a sentence?

Student 1: It marks a pause.

*I try not to develop the power of super-strength and leap furiously upon Student 1*

Me: Okay...what role does a semi-colon have in a sentence?

Student 2: It marks a longer pause.


I'll deal more thoroughly with commas later. For now, I'll just say that they bloody do not denote bloody pauses. Well...sometimes, they do. They also have specific grammatical functions that cause those pauses. If you inserted a comma every time William Shatner paused, you would get:

I, am the, captain, of the, Starship, Enterprise, and I, am now, going, to make a, speech about, how, noble my, purpose, is, especially, since you, are a hot, alien, babe, and will probably, die, in, my, arms.

I don't freaking well think so.

For now, just take it from me: those commas you are flinging madly about are actually in your sentences for a reason. Stop sprinkling them randomly over your essays. Better yet, read up on the comma rules. Yes, you! Yes, you can! If you know what a sentence is, they really aren't that difficult.

The problem is that a lot of people don't know what a sentence is. The semi-colon suffers from this gap in knowledge; it may suffer even more than the comma.

Look! Look! I just used a semi-colon! Why did I? Was I pausing? Was I doing something other than pausing? What does it all mean?*****

To answer this question, I must return to How to Write an Independent Clause 101. In a moment, you will see why.

An independent clause consists of two bits: the subject and the predicate. The subject is the element that does stuff (usually a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase). The predicate is the verb (i.e., what the subject is doing) plus everything else (i.e., words and phrases that modify the verb). An independent clause can (and often does) stand on its own to form a sentence. No other type of construction can do so. A phrase (a collection of consecutive words lacking either a subject or a predicate) cannot be a sentence. A relative clause (a clause--containing a subject and a predicate--that begins with "whom," "which," or "that": for instance, the bit including and following "that" in "I had to protect the carrot that I had eaten") cannot be a sentence. A subordinate clause (a clause that can't stand on its own but depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning: for instance, the bit including and following "while" in "He ate breakfast while she took a nap") cannot be a sentence.

In this clause:

John ate the cat.

"John" is the subject; "ate the cat" is the predicate.

The predicate has to contain a verb (in this case, the third-person singular past-tense version of "to eat"). Everything else is just window dressing. A predicate that contains no verb is not a predicate at all. If a construction lacks either a subject or a predicate, it is a phrase, not an independent clause.

The shortest sentence in the English language is probably:


It is in the imperative, meaning that the subject, "you," is implied; the speaker is giving a command to the listener. "Go" itself is the predicate.

Yes, I am about to return to semi-colons. Watch me. Here I go:

A semi-colon is not a bloody long pause. In fact, it can only be used in two situations:

1) To separate two independent clauses.

2) To separate the items of a complex list.

The first situation is both the most straightforward and the one that people mess up the most. Think of it this way: if the words to the left or the right of your semi-colon cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, your semi-colon is incorrect. For instance, in this sentence:

Danielle went to the ball; because her mother forced her to do so.

the semi-colon separates an independent clause and a subordinate clause. "Because her mother forced her to do so" is not a complete sentence. You don't actually need any internal punctuation in this sentence at all. However:

Danielle went to the ball; her mother forced her to do so.

is fine, as both parts of the sentence form independent clauses.

In other words, the semi-colon is rather similar to the period. Some people call it a "weak period"; it functions more or less as a full stop, but it also implies a connection between the words that precede and follow it. The following sentence:

Danielle went to the ball; on Saturday, James had a date with Meredith.******

is not problematic grammatically, but content-wise, it seems jarring. Though the semi-colon implies a connection between the two statements, no connection appears to exist.

The second use of the semi-colon is a less common one, though it can be quite useful at times. Usually, the elements of a list are separated by commas. If you are a Sandwich Devotee, you'll know about this rule, as your thesis statements generally consist of lists. A typical list might be:

James is stupid, lazy, and slow.

Commas work perfectly fine here. However, not all lists have single-word elements. A list whose elements themselves must contain commas needs more than simply commas for separation; otherwise, the list can become just about this confusing:

Janet needed a new bed, which she was planning to buy on Thursday, a refrigerator, though not the one her sister wanted her to get, since it was fairly expensive, and a potted plant, for which she had been saving for years, she claimed.


Yes, it's just generally a horrible sentence. Yet if you really needed to write it, it would probably work a bit better with semi-colons:

Janet needed a new bed, which she was planning to buy on Thursday; a refrigerator, though not the one her sister wanted her to get, since it was fairly expensive; and a potted plant, for which she had been saving for years, she claimed.


Semi-colons do nothing else.******* They are not pauses...or not only pauses. Use them wisely, and don't go on about how the rules surrounding them are tooooooooo haaaaaaaard to leeeeeeeaaaaaaaarn. They are not too hard to learn. They are not hard at all. If you are not writing a list, make sure there is what could be a complete sentence on either side of your semi-colon. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The end.

Next time, there will be Description. I am not entirely certain when next time will be, as my TAing year officially begins tomorrow; however, it will come.********

*Not mine. That would hurt.
**Guess what the next blog entry but one is going to be? That's right, boys and girls: a bibliography!***
***And there was much rejoicing.
****"Semi-colon" is also sometimes spelled "semicolon." I like the version with the hyphen because the other one sounds like some sort of rare and rather embarrassing disease.

******You'll notice that the second clause here begins with a short introductory phrase. It is not a clause in and of itself, but it is, in fact, a modifier in the clause that follows it.
*******Except maybe the winky emoticon.
********If you build it. Sorry. A lot of you were probably actually not born when that movie came out. I was fourteen. Yes, I am older than you. Shut up.


AlexiaGB said...

I love it!! Must make my students read your guide from beginning to end... Not having done secondary school in north america, I did not know anything about the sandwich essay until I started TAing last term. I was utterly bewildered when I got the following questions from students: "Does my thesis statement need to have three points?", "how many paragraphs do I need"?... My answer was invariably "umm, as many as you need to make your point??"
I should definitely have counted the paragraphs on all those essays I got with paragraphs that went on for 2 & 1/2 pages...

I referred to your blog on mine (http://guerson.wordpress.com); I hope you don't mind...

Kem said...

Hey...as you know, I found your blog (before I found this comment, actually, as a mutual friend directed me to your post)...and no, I don't mind the link. I like links. Link away, everyone.

Now I just have to get my act together and do another rant...

Fernando said...

When I think semi-colon I think period, not comma*; in other words, if the period were the semi-colon's brother**, the comma would be its cousin.

Grosso modo, I "semi-colonize" whenever I don't like the flow of a coordinating conjuction or when I revise and find out that two sentences are meant to be.

* I'm not talking about complex lists here; I barely use them.

** or sister. I don't want trouble with the same people that came up with "he or she."

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