Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 3, 2009 at 12:50 am

stack of books ONE WAY TO USE A SEMICOLON ;

One of the most misused forms of punctuation is the semicolon (;). For some reason, students love to use the semicolon. They’re cute, and they seem so sophisticated. I think because so many students see semicolons as cool, they’re often misused. Students use them instead of commas, instead of colons, or at odd places in a sentence. Really, there are only two uses for semicolons. Below, I’ll describe the first. We’ll talk about the second use for a semicolon next week.

The only time that you absolutely must use a semicolon is when you have a list of things AND when the things in your list have commas within them. Usually, when we write a list, we separate items in the list with commas:

I went to the store and bought a flashlight, a bicycle helmet, fancy shoes, and a stick of gum.

What happens, though, when the things in your list have commas in them?

I have been to New York, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Madison, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Georgia, Seoul, Korea, and San Francisco, California.

It gets confusing, doesn’t it? The solution is the semicolon. Here’s how we’d fix that last sentence:

I have been to New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Georgia; Seoul, Korea; and San Francisco, California.

Voila! The list is organized.


This week, I’m settling in to do some serious paper-grading. I made the mistake of having major papers due in each of my classes the same week (silly me!), so I have quite a stack of papers to get back to students. It’s no small thing, to comment on a student’s paper: to be fair and challenge each student to grow as a writer, while also being kind, respectful, and considerate of the student as a writer and a human being.

As I’m commenting on papers, I know that writing is a very personal thing. When you write for a class, you’re putting your ideas on the page and waiting for your teacher to grade what you come up with. That’s a risky endeavor, and many students have been discouraged enough by an English teacher’s critical comments to give up writing altogether. At the same time, it’s important to be challenged to grow as a writer (I never want to stop growing myself). It’s a weighty job, this commenting on papers. No matter how many times I do it, I feel a tremendous responsibility.  Here I go, diving into the stack…


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