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Semicolons: an Important Grammatical Concept On the SAT Writing and ACT English Section

I've noticed that many of my students get confused by semicolons on the SAT / ACT, though their use (unlike that of commas, for example), is fairly straightforward. A little clarification should suffice to save you time and energy during your test, and hopefully garner you a higher score.

When are semicolons used?

Semicolons are used to separate two independent clauses.

Without delving into technicalities, suffice it to say that an "independent clause" is any phrase which could stand alone as a sentence. That is, an independent clause must express a complete thought.

Let's look at the difference between independent clauses and non-indepedent clauses through some examples:

Non-independent clause: 'cats, dogs, and other domestic animals'

Independent clause: 'I love cats, dogs, and other domestic animals'

Non-independent clause: 'As I was crossing the street'

Independent clause: 'As I was crossing the street, I saw an old friend.'

The first example is a non-independent clause because it lacks the basic requirements of a sentence: a subject and predicate (verb belonging to the subject).

The second example is a non-independent clause because, although it does contain a subject and predicate, it does not express a complete thought. What was happening as I crossed the street?

Incidentally, a clause containing a subject and predicate, but not expressing a complete thought, is called a dependent clause. 'As I was crossing the street', for example, is a dependant clause.

We'll see dependent clauses in the future, but for now, don't worry about them. It's enough to have a firm understanding of what does, and what does not, construe an independent clause.

The difference between a sentence and an independent clause

An independent clause is really just a potential sentence, placed in the context of a longer sentence. For example:

'As I was crossing the street, I saw an old friend; he looked sad.'

'As I was crossing the street, I saw an old friend' is not a sentence, because it's not followed by a period; there's more to come. Similarly, 'he looked sad', another independent clause, is not its own sentence in the above context.

Semicolons and FANBOYS

If you've been studying for the SAT / ACT for a while, you've probably heard of FANBOYS. FANBOYS stands for the coordinating conjunctions 'for', 'and', 'nor', 'but', 'or', 'yet', 'so'.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a grammatically correct sentence not start with a FANBOYS. This isn't exactly true in practice; modern writers often begin sentences with a FANBOYS. In fact, even in theory it's not exactly true. The FANBOYS 'yet', for example, can begin a grammatically correct sentence in the following manner:

'The inspectors had arrived early. Yet, they went unnoticed for the first hour of their visit.'

In this sense, 'yet' is used in the same sense as 'however', which is perfectly correct as a sentence opener.

Nevertheless, the rule of thumb on the SAT / ACT remains. If you see a FANBOYS in the beginning of a sentence, there's a problem. Remember that what holds for sentences, holds for independent clauses:

FANBOYS before an independent clause are grammatically problematic.

Transition words which can be used in conjunction with semicolons

The following word types can legitimately begin sentences:

Conjunctive adverbs: however, therefore, moreover, nevertheless, etc

Subordinating conjunctions: because, while, although, since, etc

Some examples:

  • 'She maintained that the perpetrator remained in the house. However, the inspector was unconvinced.'

  • 'While the details remained unclear, we soon discovered that the gist of the issue was as we had first thought.'

Transition words: the bottom line

You don't have to remember all these technical terms. (conjunctive adverbs, coordinating conjunctions, or subordinating conjunctions). All you really have to remember is the mnemonic term FANBOYS.

FANBOYS shouldn't begin independent clauses; other transition words can.

Semicolons vs. Commas

When presented with two independent clauses in the same sentence, there are a few ways to combine them. The two most common ways are

(1) with a semicolon

(2) with a comma and a transition word.

Note that when a comma is used to separate two independent clauses, a transition word MUST be added.

However, when a semicolon is added, no transition word is necessary. If the option on the SAT / ACT question has both a semicolon as well as a FANBOYS - which it often will, because this is one of the SAT's favorite tricks - it is incorrect.

Let's look at an example. Say you have the following two independent clauses:

(1) 'I went to the store.'

(2) 'I bought some apples.'

There are several ways to combine these two independent clauses. However, the two main ways - and those most common on the SAT / ACT - is through either a comma plus a linking word, or a semicolon without a FANBOY.

With a comma and a linking word:

'I went to the store, and I bought some apples.'

With a semicolon:

'I went to the store; I bought some apples.'

Now that we've understood the fundamentals, let's look at some questions modeled on actual SAT / ACT questions.


Example #1

'Richard Green believed that the disparate problems plaguing the administration during the course of the summer could be attributed to one main cause ; the Ipsid virus, which had killed 20,000 people in July alone.'

Question #1


B) ; this was the Ipsid virus, which had killed

C) : which had killed

D) ; and the Ipsid virus had killed

(Note for those unfamiliar with how SAT Writing & Literature / ACT English questions are presented:

All, or part of, a sentence in the passage is underlined. Of the answer options, you're meant to pick the answer option which, when inserted in place of the underlined section, would make for the highest quality English. On the ACT English section, there will be a question before the options: 'Choose the best answer.' The SAT simply presents the options, without a question beforehand.)

The problem with this sentence is the part that comes after the semicolon:

'the Ipsid virus, which had killed 20,000 people during the course of July alone.'

This is not a complete thought. (If, for example, the clause had been 'the Ipsid virus killed 20,000 people during the course of July alone.', this would have been an independent clause, and the answer would have been NO CHANGE.)

Option D) starts with a FANBOYS, and so is incorrect.

Option B) amends the phrase so that the clause after the semicolon is an independent clause:

'This was the Ipsid virus, which had killed 20,000 people during the course of July alone.'

It's fine to use a semicolon before a clause like this. The answer is B).

Note that this question, as well as the one we're about to see, is a little tricky. The reason is that had the semicolon been a colon, the sentence would have been correct. Since colons and semicolons look similar, and there's often a little confusion about when to use which, we might intuitively think that the original punctuation is fine.

When you see semicolons, ALWAYS ask yourself if the clauses before and after are independent. Do this even if you think the sentence is fine.

Example #2

During the course of the seminar, Mary was exposed to several works of Dickens ; 'Great Expectations', 'A Tale of Two Cities', and 'A Christmas Carol.'

Question #2


B) . 'Great Expectations', 'A Tale of Two Cities', and 'A Christmas Carol.'

C) , they included 'Great Expectations', 'A Tale of Two Cities', and 'A Christmas Carol.'

D) ; they included 'Great Expectations', 'A Tale of Two Cities', and 'A Christmas Carol.'

The question is currently incorrect because of what follows the semicolon:

'Great Expectations', 'A Tale of Two Cities', and 'A Christmas Carol.'

This isn't an independent clause - it's lacking a subject and predicate.

The option which replaces the current sentences with a semicolon and two independent clauses - one before, one after - is D). That's is the correct answer.

Example #3

'Colin Richard went to the pharmacy , he bought a new brush and a bottle of shampoo.'

Question #3


B) ; he bought

C) and he bought

D) ; and he bought

The current sentence is incorrect because a comma, sans linking word, currently separates the two clauses. Option D) utilizes a semicolon with a FANBOYS. Option B) separates two independent clauses with a semicolon; this is the correct answer.

(We will discuss why something like option C) is incorrect in a future article.)

A few last words

Hopefully this article eliminated some of the confusion regarding semicolons. In the future we'll probably discuss other elements of punctuation frequent on the SAT / ACT: specifically, commas and colons. The more of these basic rules you're exposed to, the easier these questions will seem.

For more tips and methods, or to get help personally tailored to your needs, consider working with me. I've helped people from all over the world get into their dream school. Studying privately with a skilled teacher is the best way to increase your test score, and in coaching you, I adopt my methods specifically to your personality, schedule, and learning style.

Happy learning,