Rules How to Use a Semicolon Accurately in the English Language

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When you read books, articles in a newspaper or passages online, are you able to recognize the difference between a colon and a semicolon in English? Perhaps, you sometimes struggle using the semicolon punctuation mark correctly in written English.

Often mistaken with colons, semicolons have their distinct functions. Thus, they must be written in sentences according to the grammar rules. Similar to other punctuation marks, a semicolon is unique in the manner in which it is used, so avoid interchanging this punctuation with others unless it has the same rule. Therefore, if you know the rules about when to use a specific punctuation, you will be in a better position to perform well in formal written English on an exam such as the TOEFL writing section or the AWA on the GMAT.

What does a semicolon look like? A comma with a period on top of it. This is no coincidence! A semicolon, like a comma, indicates a spoken pause, a bit longer than a comma’s pause but shorter than the pause of a period at the end of a sentence. When we read  or speak out loud, our voices pause for semicolons in a similar way–but slightly more–than we would pause for a comma. So, when you listen to spoken English, you can actually hear a pause for a semicolon.

In many cases, a semicolon links two thoughts or related ideas. In formal academic written English, each thought or idea is usually in its own sentence. However, the flow of the writing might not be smooth if all the sentences are short or simple. Yet, if you are able to master the art of using semicolons accurately, it can give a smoother flow to your writing and even improve your performance on the written portion of a standardized test.

The functions that semicolons perform are unique, so be sure you avoid the common mistake of using a semicolon to replace a colon. For instance, an example of incorrect usage is as follows: I have one objective; to get a high score. The correct punctuation would be to employ a colon ( : )  in this case. Correct >> I have one objective: to get a high score.

Avoid confusion by practicing to write with semicolons precisely because even though semicolons look a little like a period on top of a comma, they do not have the same uses. Here are some grammar rules of when you can use semicolons in your writing.

  1. Connect two related sentences (independent clauses)–like replacing a period. A semicolon divides the thoughts but also links those ideas.
  • Structure: Sentence #1 + ; + related Sentence #2.

          Examples:

  • Give me a ring on Saturday; we can decide then if we want to go out to the party.
  • Mom still rides her bike; her two back baskets balance her stability when riding.

2. Connect two sentences close in meaning using a transition (moreover, furthermore, namely, nevertheless, for example, however, otherwise, therefore, thus, then, finally, likewise, consequently) such as a conjunctive adverb. Use a comma after the transition.

  • Structure: #1 Sentence + ; + transition, + sentence #2 close in meaning.

          Examples:

  • My sister does not agree with my nephew riding around on a motorcycle; however, she used to ride a motorcycle when she was young.
  • My friend thinks that working 80 hours per week is normal; consequently, he has hardly any downtime to spend with his partner.
  • My grandma passed away at a ripe old age; nevertheless, she had filled herself with chocolates, desserts and liquor every day.

3. Use semicolons with a complicated list of items of a series(e.g. with commas within the series) to clarify and prevent confusion

  • Structure: #1 item+, + other + ; + #2 item +, + other + ; + and #3 item +, + other

          Example:

  • On her bike, my sister has traveled to Barcelona, Spain; Toronto, Canada; Vancouver, Canada; and San Francisco, California.

Remember to keep in mind:

  • Avoid using semicolons too much; you shouldn’t write them often in an essay. Focus on using them for that special circumstance, only when necessary.
  • The two main clauses that the semicolon connects must be related.
  • After the semicolon, do not capitalize the beginning letter of the word that follows (like you do following a period) unless that word happens to be a proper noun, such as I, which is always capitalized.

Since these rules are super easy to familiarize yourself with, you should have no trouble using them correctly in your next essay or on an exam such as on the TOEFL writing section or the AWA (GMAT.)

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How to Learn New Vocabulary

Over the course of many years of teaching adults English writing, one of the experiential goals of university courses was to aid students in building vocabulary. If students employ a systematic strategy to increase their knowledge of English words, their level of English, particularly for TOEFL, will go up. You may be asking yourself, “How do I learn new vocabulary?”

First, make a plan to expand your reading, listening, speaking, and writing in order to be exposed to more English vocabulary. You can speak to native speakers and write emails to them to gain knowledge of new words. For both reading and listening, strategize how you can incorporate the time to read English articles and listen to lectures into your day: either at a set time daily, in the early morning before your work schedule, during your commute, or after work in the evening, for instance.  When you are reading, you do not need to identify new words. Only after you have finished the article and understand the main idea and key points can you scan the article once more and look for new words to make note of. The same goes for lectures. If you are listening for note-taking, just focus on the task of taking down effective notes such as the topic, main purpose and key points and details; do not get distracted by writing new vocabulary. Once you have completed the listening once, you can notice if there were many new words that you did not understand. If so, you can review the lecture transcript (or listen again) to take down the new words in your vocabulary notebook. If you see too many new words, focus on just a few for each article or lecture to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Once you become more exposed to challenging vocabulary, you can start identifying new words and create a vocabulary journal to use daily. A vocabulary journal can be either a traditional paper notebook for English words or an e-vocabulary list in your smartphone. Use whatever is most convenient to study from every day. A vocabulary notebook divided into specific sections will help to have a better outcome in learning more English words. When you start your word notebook, divide the notes into different sections such as by where you discover the new words like from an online newspaper, an English prep book, or Tedxtalks. Then, separate the notebook into categories by unique theme like medical, science, food, idioms, law, finance, business, meetings, etc. Be sure to write the date of when you jot down your new words since you will want to track your vocabulary progress. Going back to a specific date, you can notice what words you remember. If you keep your notebook organized, it will be easier and faster to review and recall words to build your language.

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You might be thinking, “What else do I write down in my vocabulary lists?” If you divide your two open notebook pages into columns, you can have a list of the new words on the left, the definitions in the second column, the examples (in sentences) in the third column, and a few synonyms in the fourth column. So, when you open your notebook, each page would have two columns, but an open-faced book of two pages would have four columns related to just one list of words on the left side. It would be the same structure if you have a digital vocabulary notebook on your smartphone. The advantage to taking notes on 1) the new word, 2) the definition, 3) an example of the word in a sentence, and 4) synonyms is that you can remember the language more easily when you review daily, every other day, or biweekly, depending on when your study sessions are scheduled.

To see language results, reviewing the new vocabulary is essential. Carry your vocabulary notebook with you everywhere you go, and if you have five minutes of downtime, pull it out of your bag to review your word lists.