Semicolons are the bane of many a student on the SAT. As soon as they see one they think run-on sentence or verbiage. The SAT definitely plays on this fear by including many correct answers in the Identifying the Error portion of the Writing Section.
Below, I’ve included a few useful tips and examples to help you no longer fear the semi-colon; I hope you will take note of the SAT grammar rules you’ll need to know about semi-colons.
Meet the Independent Clause
Think of the independent clause as a stand alone sentence.
The boy left abruptly.
He realized it was time for dinner.
Meet the Dependent Clause
These two sentences can be contrasted to dependent clauses, which ‘depend’ on another clause to be complete. They cannot stand alone as sentences.
The boy, looking at his watch
The boy with the blue T-shirt
When we want to join two independent clauses, we can use a conjunction (and usually a comma).
The boy left abruptly, because he realized it was time for dinner.
The boy left abruptly, but he realized only later that he should have said goodbye.
Using the Semicolon
And here is the important part: we can also use a semicolon to join to independent clauses. In fact, on the SAT, you cannot use a semicolon to join an independent clause and dependent clause.
The boy left abruptly; he realized it was time for dinner. CORRECT
The boy left abruptly; realizing it was time for dinner. INCORRECT
Also, never put a semicolon next to a conjunction (that’s what commas are for).
The boy left abruptly; because he realized it was time for dinner. INCORRECT
The use of the semicolon is actually far more nuanced than this, but for SAT purposes the above is all you need to know. If you want to learn how to use a semicolon in your writing (which does pertain to the SAT essay) and/or want to learn more about this much feared semicolon, check out this amazing take on semi-colons by The Oatmeal. I cannot think of a more fun way to learn grammar.
Now let’s try out an actual example:
Preferring campaign ads to live interviews, the latter is often beyond the candidate’s control because it involves surprises.
(A) Preferring campaign ads to live interviews, the latter is often beyond the candidate’s control because it involves surprises.
(B) Because most presidential candidates prefer campaign ads to live interviews, the latter often involves surprises beyond the candidate’s control.
(C) Most presidential candidates prefer campaign ads to live interviews; the latter often involves surprises beyond the candidate’s control.
(D) Most presidential candidates, who prefer campaign ads to live interviews, are beyond the candidate’s control as it involves surprises.
(E) Involving surprises, most candidates prefer campaign ads to live interviews because they can involve surprises.
I know, I know… this one is kind of easy; you were looking for it. It’s the answer choice with the semicolon (C). All the other answer choices involve misplaced modifiers, illogical comparisons, and, in the case of (B) faulty coordination.
The main hope – at least on my part – is you didn’t choose one of these wrong answers because you were scared of the semicolon. The other hope is you actually analyzed (C) by asking yourself: Is that semicolon joining two independent clauses?
If not, read the post again. Or check out the oatmeal link to really nail the semicolon.
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About Chris Lele
Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 10 million views. You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog! You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!
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