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Grammar Turned on its Head

By Terry Phelps, Ph.D.

Grammar often prompts frustration, embarrassment, insecurity, miscommunication, and debate. Why? Grammar books are loaded with abstract, terminology-laden rules and exceptions that hinder understanding.

Consequently, I have written an e-book, “Grammar Upside Down,” to make it easier to understand grammar and to show applications beyond correctness: clarity, conciseness, and style. The title comes from the method I employ: instead of beginning each concept with a rule or definition and terminology, I begin with examples of patterns and lead the reader through simple analysis to see the patterns. Then I provide the rule/definition/terminology for what the reader has already figured out. The focus is on learning the patterns, not the terminology. Many students have told me that after completing my book, they really understand grammar for the first time. Example?

Consider the semicolon. When renowned novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. spoke in OCU’s Distinguished Speakers Series 12 years ago, he disparaged semicolons: “All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.

On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.”

Indeed, semicolons are useful. Let’s explore how.

Analyze the sentences below and see what pattern you can find with the semicolons. What do you notice about the groups of words on each side of the semicolons?

  • He had worked hard; he deserved a raise.
  • Many of my friends have moved away; only a few have stayed.

On each side of the semicolon is a complete idea (called an independent clause), a group of words with a subject and verb, which could stand alone as a sentence. Unlike a comma, a semicolon can connect independent clauses without a connecting word (such as and). The intent of the semicolon is to demonstrate a close relationship between the two ideas it connects.

It may help to think of the semicolon as a period on top of a comma: it has the ability of a comma to connect, as well as the ability of a period to separate complete thoughts.

In the sentences below, what is added after the semicolons and why?

  • Sarah is on vacation; however, she will return Friday.
  • The renters missed six payments; therefore, they were evicted.

The specific relationship (contrast, cause and effect) between the clauses is expressed with a connecting word (called a conjunctive adverb, which is separated from the rest of the second clause by a comma).

Semicolons have another important use. Analyze the sentences below to determine the pattern.

What would be the problem if all the semicolons in these two sentences were replaced with commas?

  • I found four kinds of errors in his paper: comma splices; quotation marks, both single and double; possessives, those with apostrophes before the s; and fragments.
  • He has a few close friends: Claudia, a piano teacher from Illinois; Quinn, a chef at the best restaurant in town; Aidan, a jazz bass player; and Brett, a historian.

Without semicolons in sentences such as the two above, readers might get confused about where one item ends and another begins. This is especially true when one or more items in a series include information about the item.

Editor’s Note: “Grammar Upside Down” will be available soon at amazon.com.

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