Wednesday, October 1, 2014

It depends! (Clauses and Semicolons)

Courtesy of stockimages at
What's up with the guy in the red suit?  Well, he heard that my blog post today was going to be about clauses and he just showed up.  Ba-dum chhh! Seriously though, doesn't he look astute and ready to learn?  He's got his pen all ready to take notes and everything.

Obviously, today's post is not about Santa Claus.  It's about clauses (the kind spelled with an 'e' on the end.)

So, what is a clause?  CCC Foundation's Guide to Grammar and Writing defines it very neatly: "A clause is a group of related words containing a subject and a verb."

They also have a picture of Jolly Saint Nick on their site, but their Santa isn't anywhere near as smart looking as mine is. I mean, look at this guy! He has glasses and a clipboard. My smart Santa is way better than their silly dancing Santa.  Besides, I'm also way funnier than them, amirite?

By the way, "amirite" is a total crime against all things grammatical.  It's really fun to write, though, amirite?

Yes.  I did have a lot of coffee this morning.  Why do you ask?


Clauses versus phrases

Before we get into clauses more deeply, it's important to understand the difference between clauses and phrases. A clause is different from a phrase, because phrases do not have a true subject-verb relationship in them. For example, this is a phrase:

Within the sleigh

Specifically, it is a prepositional phrase. This is also a phrase:

Flying within the sleigh

It does have a subject and a verb, ‘flying’ and ‘sleigh,’ but ‘sleigh’ is the object of the preposition, not the subject that is flying.  If we subtract the object of the preposition, we are left with

Flying within

This is a participial phrase, because the verb in it is a participle.  Even if we add the object of the preposition back in, it is still a participial phrase.  Phrases are sort of like those Russian nesting dolls.  You can have phrases within phrases, within phrases, and within phrases. Phrases are always connected to clauses, generally by commas.  By themselves they are incomplete sentences.  An incomplete sentence is called a “sentence fragment.” Don’t worry.  There won’t be a quiz. If you want to learn more about phrases, check out this page from Guide to Grammar and Writing.

Independent Clauses

Now, look at this string of words:

Father Christmas flew above the city.

This a clause, because it has a proper subject-verb relationship even if you remove the modifying phrase, “above the city”:

Father Christmas flew.

This type of clause is an independent clause, because it can stand as a complete sentence by itself.  Here are several examples of independent clauses:

Rudolph's red nose glowed brightly. 

Santa had to wear sunglasses because of this. 

Santa became rather cranky.

A dependent clause (also sometimes called as subordinate clause) is a clause that cannot stand by itself to form a sentence.

If Santa was cranky

As Rudolph grinned impishly 

These are both clauses with a proper subject-verb relationship, but neither of them can stand by themselves as a sentence.  Standing alone, they are sentence fragments. This is because they have dependent words in them, like 'if' and 'as.' There are many dependent words, but here are a few common ones:
  • if
  • because
  • until
  • whereas
  • though
  • while
Generally speaking, dependent clauses are joined to independent clauses by a comma:

Santa was absolutely sick of Rudolph's obnoxious antics, so he complained to Mrs. Claus about it.

While Santa was eating his peas, he grumbled about how much he hated that uppity Rudolph.  

Mrs. Claus tried to be sympathetic, though she was disappointed that Santa did not seem to be enjoying his peas. 

This is far from an exhaustive explanation of clauses, but it provides enough background for me to talk about the subject I really want to cover: semicolons.

Semicolons are delightful little punctuation marks that serve two purposes: they join independent clauses, and they act as a super comma.

Joining independent clauses

There are two ways to join independent clauses.  One is with a comma followed by a conjunction:

Santa Claus is cranky, and Mrs. Claus does not feel like dealing with it. 

The other is to join them with a semicolon:

Santa Claus is cranky; Mrs. Claus does not feel like dealing with it. 

Never join two independent clauses with nothing more than a comma:

Santa Claus is cranky, Mrs. Claus does not feel like dealing with it.

That right there, my friends, is a comma splice.  Comma splices are bad.  They make my sister-in-law cringe.  The expression "comma splice" alone makes her cringe.  They don't make me cringe, but that doesn't mean that my sister-in-law's reaction is unjustified. It might be a teensy bit over the top, however. If she and I were the Grammar Police, she'd be the terrifying cop you don't mess with. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Love ya, sis!)

You know, I'm probably going to pay for that remark with a long list of my grammatical errors in the comments.

Anyway, you've probably heard about "run-on" sentences in your English classes. You might think that a run-on sentence is simply a really long sentence, but that's not the case.  A run-on sentence is a sentence which contains a comma splice.  It could be really short, like "I win, you lose." The proper way to write that would be either "I win; you lose" or "I win, and you lose."

So, the moral the story is: don't combine independent clauses with nothing more than a comma.  Give the poor comma a break. Either replace it with a semicolon or give the comma a nice, friendly, helpful conjunction.

Speaking of giving commas a break...

Semicolons as super commas

You probably remember that when you have a list of things, you are supposed to separate the items in the list using a comma:

A, B, and C

Lists like this are frequently incorporated into sentences:

Mrs. Claus's dinner consisted of peas, carrots, and mashed potatoes. 

If your list contains items which are complex phrases, you should separate each item with a semicolon:

Mrs. Claus's Dinner consisted of freshly steamed peas, tossed in herbed butter; tender carrots, roasted with honey and cinnamon; and creamy mashed potatoes drenched in rich brown gravy.

I kind of just made myself drool while writing that.  I probably shouldn't write blog posts this close to lunchtime. 

When not to use the semicolon

There's the old saying: "Discretion is the better part of valor." (For some reason, this saying is really popular in a lot style guides, so I felt kind of obligated to use it as well.)  Though semicolons are hardly valorous, it is still better to use them with discretion.

Say you have two independent clauses:

Santa ate some dessert. 

He cocked his hunting rifle.

You could join these two clauses with a semicolon, and it would still be grammatically correct.  In terms of style, however, it would be a poor choice.  Semicolons indicate that the two clauses are somehow related.  Eating dessert is completely unrelated to cocking a rifle. If you were completely desperate to make these two clauses into one sentence, turn one of them into a dependent clause:

Before he cocked his hunting rifle, Santa ate some dessert.

It's still pretty ridiculous, but the clauses are now related in terms of the order in which they occurred.

However, consider these two clauses:

Rudolph wandered into the crosshairs of Santa's rocket launcher. 

Santa drew a deep breath and squeezed the trigger.

These clauses are certainly related to each other.  They are action-packed, so leaving them as separate sentences creates too much of a pause between them. We could join them with a comma and a conjunction, but that would slow the pace down.  It looks like it's the semicolon to the rescue!

Rudolph wandered into the crosshairs of Santa's rocket launcher; Santa drew a deep breath and squeezed the trigger.

When it comes to the semicolon as a super comma, don't use it just because the items in your list consist of more than one word.  For example, you should still use commas for short entries like these:

Rudolph jumped in terror, leapt into the air, and flew away from Santa's mad blood lust. 

It's when you have complex phrases that you want to use the semicolon as a super comma.

Santa ran back inside, looking for his reindeer tracker, which he had recently invented; his bigger, deadlier rocket launcher; and his new, reindeer-free hover sleigh.

Hopefully, this has helped you understand the use of semicolons a little better.  When you choose to use them really depends on the affect you are trying to achieve, as well as the complexities of the sentence you are writing.  It's easy to over-use semicolons, so if it seems like you're using them every other sentence, consider joining the clauses differently or breaking up the sentences for a little variety. 

Do you have any more questions about clauses or semicolons? Ask them or share any thoughts you might have in the comments. 

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I especially loved your example sentences! This was exactly what I needed to have clarified about semicolon use. Your explanation of run-on sentences was particularly useful; as you know, A and I have been editing our fanfiction, and you would not believe the errors we have found. One chapter is actually getting a full rewrite.

    I'm sorry for the delay in comments. I really wanted to answer the writing challenge from last Tuesday before responding to these later posts, but I hit a huge block. I decided to move on and come back to it later.