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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Tips for each TOEFL section

Reading

For the reading questions, focus on the areas that the questions relate to. The questions come in the order they appear. You should be ready for the kind of questions you will be asked. Many of the readings have a main idea question and at least two vocabulary questions are in each reading in addition to some detailed questions and inference questions. Skim the reading, go through the questions, then read for detail. You won’t have time to reread the entire passage. In the speaking and writing sections, you have to show that you have a good grammar ability, so be familiar with key academic vocabulary, but in the reading section, you do not have to know every single word in a passage to get the right answer to the questions. Practice reading with no dictionary.

Listening

On the real test, you will only hear everything one time, so you will need to simulate this and train your ears to listen fully the first and only time. When you are practicing for the listening sections, only play the listening ONCE. On the exam day, the clock will not start until you start the answers. Do NOT look at a listening question after you have decided on an answer since you cannot change it. Listen for main idea at the start, compare/contrast points, key points to support the main purpose and details such as when, where, how, and why.

Speaking

You can pause for a second when you respond. Try to fill as much of the time as possible with your speaking response. If you have a few extra seconds you can make a few second summary to conclude. You will have a lower score for poor pronunciation, so AVOID advanced words that you cannot pronounce correctly. Improper vocabulary and idioms also bring a lower score so be sure you know how to use an expression properly BEFORE you use it on the exam.

Writing

The first task in the writing section, you will need to integrate ideas from the reading and lecture and show their relationship, so study former practice tests and model essays, so you can know how to relate contrasting viewpoints on the same topic from different authors or a writer and a lecturer.

Keep your writing simple and clear! There is no spell check, so type accurately to avoid many typing errors. Do not use big vocabulary and advanced punctuation that you are not sure of.

Plan your essay before you write it. Your plan will save time so you have a well-organized writing. When you practice essays, find a format that you are comfortable writing. Use the same format/structure each time. For example, your thesis might always be in the third sentence of your introduction. You might always end your conclusion with a question. Make sure to use lots of examples to support your essay. Transitional words and phrases will make your writing easier to read. Memorize a list of transitions and know how to type them with no errors. At the end, leave a little time to revise what you wrote.