Guide to the
Marking of Written Assignments
by Ian Johnston
[This document is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. Released July 2000]
Table of Contents
SECTION 1: PHRASES, CLAUSES, SENTENCES
1.1 The basic unit of writing is the clause, a group of words containing a subject and a predicate. The subject names something (person, place, thing, or idea), and the predicate asserts something about the subject. The major part of the predicate is the verb, the word which describes an action or a condition involving the subject.
There are two forms of clause: an independent (or main) clause and the dependent or subordinate clause. The first type can stand by itself as an independent sentence; it makes complete sense. The second type does not make sense by itself and must have with it an independent clause to complete the full meaning of an independent sentence.
Almost all dependent clauses have a subordinating word at the very start to indicate to the reader that she is now dealing with a dependent idea (e.g., if, when, unless, since, because, although, and so on).
The car ran over the pedestrian. (Independent clause).
Just as the car ran over the pedestrian. (Dependent clause)
Although the car ran over the pedestrian. (Dependent clause).
The fact that he was out of the room. (Dependent clause)
Notice that all of the above examples are clauses (they all have subjects and predicates, including verbs), but only the very first one makes sense by itself. The others require some additional words (a main clause) to complete the meaning.
A phrase is a group of words which does not have both a subject and a predicate, i.e., any group of words which is not a clause (e.g., once upon a time, in the trunk, depending on circumstances, the dog in the kitchen). A sentence is a group of words which belong together because they form a complete and independent thought. Every sentence, therefore, must contain at least one independent clause, with a subject and a predicate (and may contain more than one).
1.2 The most basic mistake in writing is the sentence fragment. This error occurs when what is offered up a sentence is not complete, because some essential part is missing, usually the subject or the verb.
There was a heavy snowfall. Causing the bridge to fall down.
[The second sentence in the above example has no subject and no main verb]
For example, the truck without chains in the mud.
[This sentence has no predicate. It names a subject but asserts nothing about it]
I ran home. Which was a stupid thing to do.
[The second sentence has no independent clause. The word "Which" introduces a dependent clause which cannot stand by itself as a complete sentence]
1.3 Be careful to avoid the common forms of a sentence fragment. Make sure that every group of words which you offer as a sentence (i.e., starting with a capital letter and ending with a full stop) contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete idea. If you are not sure quite what this means, read Sections 1.1 and 1.2 above.
The sections below indicate some of the more common forms of this mistake.
1.3.1 Do not offer up a dependent clause with an introductory subordinating word as an independent clause. Such a dependent clause must have a main clause to complete the meaning. The following examples illustrate this mistake (the first example is really common with writers who confuse although and however):
Henry asks his wife about working in the garden. Although he does not really mean the offer seriously.
[The second sentence is a dependent clause; it cannot stand by itself]
We cannot recommend going ahead at this stage. Since the cost of the project is excessive.
[The second sentence here is a fragment, since it is a dependent clause. It cannot stand by itself].
1.3.2 Be particularly careful of sentences starting with the word which. Unless the sentence is a question, you will almost always be writing a fragment. See the third example in 1.2 above. The same problem can occur with who and whose. Do not start a sentence with these words, unless you are asking a question.
1.3.3 Do not construct a sentence which has only a present participle in place of a main verb. See the first example above in 1.2. A present participle (a verbal adjective ending in -ing) cannot stand by itself as a main verb. This is a very common form of sentence fragment.
1.3.4 When you start a sentence with the words For example or For instance make sure the example you then offer forms a complete sentence (see the second example in 1.2 above).
1.3.5 Do not use point form in an essay, business letter, or technical report, since that style depends a great deal upon sentence fragments. In formal college writing, never use point form.
1.3.6 Be careful at the start of a business letter with the phrase In regard to or In response to. If you start a sentence in this manner, you will often write a sentence fragment.
1.3.7 A sentence which begins with a noun clause introduced by the word that is a fragment, unless you add a main clause to the that clause. For example, the words A sense that the speaker is sad by themselves form a fragment, since the phrase consists of a noun (sense) and a dependent clause introduced by that. To correct the fragment, you will have to add a predicate (with a main verb), for example, A sense that the speaker is sad pervades the poem.
1.3.8 Be careful of quotations which do not form complete sentences. You cannot leave these by themselves. Incorporate them into your own sentence, so that you do not create a fragment.
Lear's speech indicates that the heavenly bodies have a role in a person's character. "By all the operation of the orbs/ From whom we do exist and cease to be" (1.1.111-112).
The quotation here is set up as a complete sentence (between full stops), but it is not a complete and independent idea. To correct the mistake, make the quotation part of the previous sentence by changing the full stop to a comma or a colon.
1.4 Sentences are either statements, questions, commands, or exclamations. In college writing, almost all your sentences should be statements and therefore begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. However, notice the following points.
1.4.1 A sentence which asks a direct question has a question mark at the end in place of the full stop. For example, "Have you sent the order yet?" or "Why does Elisa cry at the end of the story?"
1.4.2 However, if the question makes a mild request or a gentle command (a frequent practice in business writing), then a full stop is more common than a question mark, since the sentence is really a mild imperative (command) rather than a true question. For example, "Would you please ship the order quickly" or "Could you please send me the information at your convenience." These sentences do not have question marks at the end, although formally they are questions, because the purpose of the sentence is not to ask for information but to make a polite request.
1.5 Never use a question mark when the sentence forms an indirect question, that is, when the sentence reports a question as part of a statement. The question mark remains if the question is in quotation marks, but is not present if the question is a integral part of the reported speech. Notice the following examples.
Why were you late?
(Direct question; question mark is necessary)
She asked me why I was late.
(Indirect question, no question mark)
She asked, "Why were you late?"
(Direct question in quotation marks; question mark is necessary)
The question remains whether or not she is guilty.
(Indirect question, no question mark)
I don't know why she is guilty.
(Indirect question, no question mark)
1.6 Do not use double question marks when you are dealing with a sentence which is a question and which contains a quotation which is a question. Notice the end punctuation (the position of the question mark) in the following examples:
Why are you late?
She asked, "Why are you late?"
Did she ask, "Why are you late?"
Did she say, "I was late"?
The question mark is inside in the quotation marks in the second example because the quotation is a question but the entire sentence is not (it is a statement). In the third example, both the sentence and the quotation are questions, but there is only one question mark, the one inside the quotation. In the last example the question mark comes outside the quotation because the entire sentence is a question but the quotation is not.
1.7 Exclamations, indicated by an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence, are not particularly common in formal writing and in technical prose. Unless you are interested in a very special effect, you should normally avoid exclamations as much as possible. And never use them so frequently that the effect is lost.
1.8 In any clause, the subject must agree with the verb; that is, a singular subject has a singular verb, and a plural subject has a plural verb. Make sure you do not become confused by some word between the subject and the verb. Notice the following examples.
The collection of fifty guns has been stolen. [The subject is collection]
The disease which infected the trees is root rot. [The subject is disease]
1.9 When a sentence has two or more subjects joined with the word and (i.e., has a compound subject), the verb is obviously plural. For example, "John and his sister are arriving tomorrow."
1.10 Sometimes (and very rarely) a compound subject will take a singular verb. This normally occurs only when the two nouns form a single unit and always appear together as a unit (e.g., macaroni and cheese, ham and eggs, hack and squirt, rock and roll, fish and chips, and so on).
Macaroni and cheese is my favourite food.
Hack and squirt was an appropriate method in this case.
1.11 Some words which have a plural form routinely take a singular verb, and subjects which name numerical qualities usually have a singular verb. The following words, for example, are normally singular: news, physics, economics, fifteen miles, eight years.
Fifteen miles is a long way to hike, and twelve hours was not enough time.
The news is not good.
If in doubt, trust your ears. Write what sounds correct to you.
1.12 Note that group noun are sometimes singular and sometimes plural, depending on usage. Write what sounds more correct to you. The same rule applies to the names of specific companies, countries, or groups.
The army is marching, and the police are preparing for trouble.
The United States is a very powerful country.
The Rolling Stones are more popular than Styx.
If you are not sure which is more correct (singular or plural), then add the phrase members of and make the verb plural. For example, if you aren't sure whether the phrase federal cabinet has a single or plural verb, change that phrase to the members of the federal cabinet and make the verb plural (since the subject, members, is clearly a plural word).
1.13 Make sure you are consistent with group nouns and names. If you treat the name of a company as plural, for example, then keep it consistently plural in the sentence and throughout the piece of writing. You will have to watch very carefully the verbs and the pronouns.
Gorman Brothers are expanding their logging division. They are hiring more staff for their expansion.
Gorman Brother is expanding its logging division. It is hiring more staff for its expansion.
Both examples above are correct (although the singular is more common). In the first, the verb and the pronouns are plural; in the second the verb and the pronouns are in the singular. Gorman Brothers is the name of the company. Do not mix singular and plural forms of the verbs and the pronouns, either in the same sentence or throughout a piece of writing.
1.14 When you use the expressions there is (or there was) and there are (or there were), the verb must agree with what comes after it (the complement). If the complement is singular, then the verb must be singular (is or was); if the complement is plural, then the verb must be plural (are or were). Do not use there is (or was) with a plural complement or there are (or were) with a singular complement.
There is no reason to worry, since there are many ways we can deal with this problem.
There were many more men available, so there was no problem when he was late.
1.15 Many indefinite pronouns are routinely singular: everyone, none, someone, no one, every, everybody, each and so on. These words require a singular verb:
Everyone is keen, each of the commanders is ready, no one is absent, and everyone is going to perform bravely.
None of the answers is satisfactory. [Note that none is a short form for not one, hence singular]
1.16 The word number can sometimes create problems. When you use it to mean several or some, then it is a plural word and requires a plural verb. When you use it word number to mean a mathematical figure, then it is singular and requires a singular verb.
A number of students are going to write the examination.
The number of this bus is 715.
The number of urban crimes is decreasing.
1.17 Be very careful with the expressions as well as, together with, combined with and along with. These prepositions do not form compound subjects requiring a plural verb.
The supervisor as well as the crew arrives tomorrow.
[Singular verb since the subject is supervisor]
The supervisor and the crew arrive tomorrow.
[Plural verb since the subject is supervisor and the crew]
Only the conjunction and routinely joins two nouns to form a compound subject requiring a plural verb. If you find this point too confusing, then stop using the expressions listed above and confine yourself to and to indicate a shared action.
Similarly be very careful with the word plus. Do not use it to mean and except in mathematical expressions (e.g., two plus two equals four). Note that in such equations the verb is singular. Avoid plus to indicate joint action (that is, as a colloquial equivalent to and); instead use and or together with.
1.18 If the subject of the sentence is a choice linked by or or nor, then the verb agrees with the subject closer to it. Both of the following examples are correct. Notice that the verb agrees with the closer subject.
The coach or the players have stolen the money.
The players or the coach has stolen the money.
1.19 Whenever possible, avoid unnecessary passive verbs, by making the source of the action the subject of the verb. Note that the terms active and passive applied to verbs refer to the two different voices of most English verbs. If you do not understand these terms clearly, read the following details carefully.
When a verb is in the active voice, the person or thing doing the action which the verb describes (i.e., the agent of the action) is the subject and almost always comes before the verb, as follows.
The students carried out the assignment.
In the above sentence the agent is the students; this term indicates the source of the action which the verb describes. The agent here comes before the verb carried out and is the subject of the sentence. In this form of the sentence the verb is active. Here is another description of the same event.
The assignment was carried out by the students.
Here the agent is the same (the students), but now it comes after the verb and is no longer the subject of the sentence (the new subject is the assignment). Thus, here the subject is not the doer of the action. Thus, the verb is passive.
Please note carefully that this question of active or passive has nothing to do with the tense of the verb (i.e., whether the action is present, past, or future). This issue is whether the subject of the verb is the agent (the doer of the action) or not. A verb can be in the present active tense (I see), the present passive (I am seen), the past active (I saw), the past passive (I was seen), the future (I will see), or the future passive (I will be seen). The terms active and passive refer to the relationship between the subject and the action which the verb describes.
You need to be able to distinguish carefully between active and passive, because as a general rule you should avoid the passive construction as much as possible and keep the verbs in the active form. This makes your style easier to read and generally more informative and correct. Here are some examples to review:
class studied the poem in the seminar. [Active]
In the seminar the poem was studied by the class. [Passive]
The engineer put special steel in this wall. [Active]
Special steel was built in this wall by the engineer. [Passive]
Note that in many passive constructions, the agent may not be mentioned:
lecture was delivered yesterday at 10:30 a.m. in Room 203.
My car was driven very dangerously last night.
These passive verbs (was delivered and was driven) indicate actions, but they do not indicate the agent (i.e., the person or thing responsible for the action).
1.20 Try to avoid a sudden switch from an active verb in the first part of a sentence to a passive verb in the remainder of the sentence. The effect is usually awkward and confusing.
Nora decides to do something decisive, so her family is abandoned by her.
[Write instead: Nora decides to do something decisive, so she abandons her family]
The company mills dimensional lumber, which is sold in the USA.
[Write instead: The company mills dimensional lumber, which it sells in the USA]
1.21 Avoid the very awkward impersonal passive expressions (passive verbs with it as the subject). These are almost always very awkward and uninformative. Here are some examples:
it can be seen that
it has been decided that
it was observed that
it is recommended that
it was concluded that
it has been said that
it must be considered
Instead of these very impersonal and awkward constructions, supply a subject, and make the verb active, as follows:
we can see that
someone has decided that
the class observed that
we recommend that
the officer concluded that
many people have said that
one must consider that
Unless there is a very special reason for using the impersonal passive constructions (e.g., in some special forms of technical or scientific writing), always get rid of the impersonal passive by indicating before the verb the agent (the doer of the action) and making the verb active. If you are not sure of a specific agent, then use a general noun or pronoun (e.g., one, people, somebody).
1.22 In scientific-technical writing, when you are describing a process (usually a job you have undertaken or a trip you are reporting back about), be careful not to slip into the passive all the time. Keep the verbs active by indicating who did the various tasks you are describing. Notice the following examples:
First the base line was measured. Then sample plots were established. And finally tree heights were calculated.
In this style, all verbs are in the passive, and thus the reader has no idea about who exactly did the specific actions described. To make the style more informative and easier to read, supply the agents and make the verbs active, as follows:
First we all measured the baseline. Then, Tom Jackson established the sample plots. Finally Cynthia James and Terry Brown calculated the tree heights.
1.23 In formal and especially in technical writing, you should try as much as possible to avoid the passive in the recommendations section of a report. Use the active, and thus indicate who is to carry out the action you are recommending. Don't say something like "We recommend that the manufacturer should be informed of the defect." Indicate who is to do the action: "We recommend that the Project Engineer inform the manufacturer of the defect."
This point is important, too, in research papers which end with recommendations. Avoid general passive verbs which do not indicate who is to carry out the action. Here is an example:
Something must be done to stop the spread of the AIDS epidemic in East Vancouver.
Indicate who should do something, by changing the verb to the active and by supplying a subject for the verb:
The provincial and municipal governments must do something to stop the spread of AIDS in East Vancouver.
1.24 Take particular care to avoid the very sloppy habit of relying on the passive of the verbs to use and to do. Note the following examples:
This machine is used to cut dimensional lumber.
[Say instead: This machine cuts dimensional lumber]
The tape is used by Spit to remind him of old times.
[Say instead: Spit uses the tape to remind him of old times, or The tape reminds Spit of old times]
The ranching is done by Henry.
[Say instead: Henry does the ranching]
The sorting of the lumber was done by a J-bar.
[Say instead: A J-bar sorted the lumber]
This analogy is used by Plato to establish his argument.
[Say instead: Plato establishes his argument with this analogy.]
1.25 Make sure the verb(s) in the sentence are in the appropriate tenses (past, present, future). The following guidelines may help.
1.25.1 Describe past actions, observations, and events in the past tense, even if the actions are still going on. In field trip reports, for example, you are recording what you saw or did some time ago, and the past tense is usually the proper form of the verb, as in the following example.
Two weeks ago I visited the Acme Manufacturing Plant. Mr. Thomas took me on a tour of the factory. The equipment was very impressive, but the organization of the plant seemed quite confusing. I did not understand their management style. Still, the operation was obviously efficient, since the average production run for that month was well above the average in comparable industries.
1.25.2 Use the present tense to describe present actions (things that are going on as you write) and to provide definitions or geographical descriptions (commonly part of the introduction to a report or essay).
1.25.3 Use the present tense to describe what goes on in a work of fiction, a philosophical argument, or a report, even if the text is old. Get used to this convention if you are writing essays on literature or if you discuss books, manuals, films, plays, paintings, and so on. Use the past tense to describe the historical context of the work (when it was written, the facts of the author's life at the time of the composition), but stay in the present tense to describe what is going on in the work. Note carefully the verb tenses in the following examples:
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1600. In the play, the hero suffers from an inability to act decisively, and his actions by the end are very destructive. Early in the play his father's ghost tells him that he must avenge his death.
The government's report on the forest industry appeared two years ago. The report lists a number of critical reasons for the sorry condition of the once-thriving coastal pulp mills. The most important reasons are clearly the following:
Aristotle wrote the Nicomachean Ethics in the latter part of his career in Athens. In the work, he takes issue with Plato's theory of forms. He introduces a number of arguments to refute the position Plato sets out in his earlier works.
1.25.4 The conditional tenses (should, would) are useful when you want to set down the conclusions and recommendations to a report or when you wish to indicate something which ought to have taken place.
The supervisor should have told his men about the dangers of this pesticide. In future the company should provide a full training program for all field personnel on this project.
1.26 As well as tenses (past, present, future, conditional) and voices (active and passive), verbs also have moods: the indicative mood, the imperative mood, and the subjunctive mood. The indicative is the mood commonly used in almost all writing. The imperative expresses direct commands (e.g., Stop. Listen to me). The subjunctive mood is very rare. Observe the following guidelines in selecting the mood of the verb.
1.26.1 In technical writing, use the imperative (commands) only in a list of specific instructions (as in this handbook) or occasionally to invite the reader to consider a particular point (e.g., Consider the case of the Stein Valley or Notice the topography in the top left corner of the map). But be careful not to switch back and forth from the indicative to the imperative, especially when you are describing a process.
First the supervisor surveyed a base line. Next, establish the plots at 10 m intervals. Then the crew sampled each plot.
In the above sentences, the second sentence has switched to the imperative mood (i.e., it issues a command rather than making a statement). That sentence should be rewritten in the same style as the others:
First the supervisor surveyed a base line. Next, the entire crew established the plots at 10 m intervals. Then the crew sampled each plot.
1.26.2 Verbs in the subjunctive are not very common. Use the subjunctive for impossible conditions or wishes or hypothetical conditions:
I wish I were the man in the moon.
If she were in my shoes, she would do it.
God bless the queen.
1.26.3 In sentences reporting recommendations and decisions the subjunctive is common, but the indicative is increasingly acceptable.
We recommend that the president fire the sales manager. [Subjunctive]
We recommend that the president fires the sales manager. [Indicative]
These two forms are equally acceptable. But you should be consistent in any list of recommendations. If you decide to use the subjunctive form, then use it throughout the list; if you prefer the indicative, then stay consistently with that tense throughout the list. Do not switch back and forth.
1.27 Do not switch tenses or moods unnecessarily from the past to the present or from the indicative to the imperative and back again. This habit can create much confusion for the reader.
While I was walking home, he hits me.
[Is the action present or past? Make the verb tenses consistent]
We watched a feller-buncher at work. This machine has a very expensive cutting head which needed a great deal of attention. It can cut over 1000 stems per day, but was not very stable on slopes.
[Since the section above is part of a field trip report, put all the verbs into the past]
Put the new oil in the engine; then you must get rid of the old oil.
[Keep in the imperative or the indicative, without switching: Either "First you put in the new oil; then you must get rid of the old oil." Or "Put in the new oil; then get rid of the old oil."]
1.28 Sentences are classified in four main types according to the arrangement of main clauses and subordinate clauses, as follows:
Simple Sentence: one independent (main clause) by itself.
Compound Sentence: two or more independent (main clauses) in a series.
Complex Sentence: one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.
Compound-Complex Sentence: two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause.
To recognize these types you will need to remember precisely the definitions of an independent clause, a dependent clause, and a phrase (see 1.1 above).
1.29 A compound sentence contains a least two independent clauses, both of equal importance. The two independent clauses might be separated into two separate sentences without creating a fragment, but the writer has decided to join them into a single sentence. The commonest way to construct a compound sentence is to join the two independent clauses with what is called a co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so, and for). Here are some examples of compound sentences formed with co-ordinating conjunctions.
The trumpets sound, and the saints go marching in.
I waited for her, but she left me crying in the rain.
I don't feel well, so I will not go to the party.
She agreed to remain behind, for she was the bravest in the group.
I could stay home tonight, or I could go to my English class.
Notice that in each of these compound sentences, a full stop could separate each independent clause without creating a sentence fragment (i.e,. a full stop could replace the commas in the middle).
When you link two independent clauses together with a co-ordinating conjunction to form a compound sentence (as in the above examples), you must put a comma immediately before the conjunction, so that you clearly indicate to the reader where the first idea ends and the second idea starts. If you leave out the comma before the conjunction, you have created a Run-on Sentence, one of the commonest mistakes in punctuation.
Note that the error Run-on Sentence consists of failing to provide a comma before a co-ordinating conjunction joining two independent main clauses (i.e., usually the writer has used and or but rather than ,and or ,but to join two main clauses).
1.30 Note that the comma in a compound sentence comes before the co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, or, so, yet, for). This does not mean that you need a comma every time you use one of these co-ordinating conjunctions. Do not get into the bad habit of putting a comma before every and or but. When the conjunction joins two parts of the same sentence, for example, no comma is necessary. Put the comma in only when the conjunction joins two independent clauses.
If you find this confusing, remember this point: put a comma before the co-ordinating conjunction only when a full stop would be equally correct (i.e., when putting in a full stop would not create a fragment). If a full stop would create a fragment, then do not put a comma before the co-ordinating conjunction. Here are some examples to consider.
He cut the meat and the potatoes.
[No comma, because the and joins two parts of the same clause. Note that if you put a full stop before the and here, you will create a sentence fragment]
He cut the meat and ate it.
[No comma, because the word and joins two parts of the same clause, two verbs. Note that if you put a full stop before the and here, you will create a sentence fragment]
He cut the meat, but the dog ate it.
[The comma is appropriate here, because the but joins two independent clauses. Note that if you use a full stop here, you do not create a fragment]
He and his dog ate the meat and the vegetables together.
[No commas before the and's in this sentence, because there is only one independent clause]
She said that I was to blame and that she would sue me.
[No comma before the and here, because the and joins two parts of the same sentence]
1.31 When you join two independent clauses with a co-ordinating conjunction to form a single compound sentence, the two clauses which make up the single compound sentence should be closely connected logically. Do not get into the habit of writing compound sentences in which two apparently unrelated ideas are linked.
The Nass Valley is in northern British Columbia, and the provincial government has only recently proposed a treaty with the first nations inhabitants of the area.
[These two ideas have no immediate logical connection. They do not belong in the same sentence. Separate them with a full stop]
The machine we watched worked well on muddy ground, but each crew supervisor was responsible for two five-men crews.
[The two halves of this single compound sentence are not clearly related]
1.32 Avoid excessively long compound sentences which consist of a number of independent clauses loosely strung together with co-ordinating conjunctions. Most compound sentences should have only two independent clauses and no more, unless you wish to create a special stylistic effect. Avoid a style like the following:
Nora is upset with Torvald, so she confronts him at the end of the play, and they quarrel bitterly, for they obviously do not understand each other, so they separate, and Nora walks out the door.
Break such a style up into much shorter units, so that the style does not simply ramble on.
1.33 Another form of the compound sentence puts the two independent clauses together without a co-ordinating conjunction. In such a sentence, a semi-colon (not a comma) indicates the end of the first independent clause and the beginning of the second independent clause (i.e., it comes where a full stop would be equally appropriate). Here are some examples:
I am sick; I have decided to stay at home today.
The ending of this story is a disappointment; the hero's conduct here is not convincing.
Notice the position of the semi-colon. It comes where a full stop would normally come, and it serves to indicate the break between the two ideas.
The above examples illustrate the only common use of the semi-colon: to separate two independent clauses in a compound sentence (where a full stop would be equally correct).
Note, then, that there are three ways to indicate the break between two independent clauses, each expressing a complete idea: (a) a full stop, (b) a comma with a co-ordinating conjunction, and (c) a semi-colon. Here are three examples to illustrate these options.
sick. I have decided to stay home today.
I am sick, and I have decided to stay home today.
I am sick; I have decided to stay home today.
The full stop, the comma linked to the co-ordinating conjunction, and the semi-colon all indicate the same thing to a reader: they all say, in effect, that this point marks the end of one complete idea and the start of a new one.
1.34 Do not overuse the semi-colon. Generally speaking, it works best between two equal independent clauses in which the second is either the result of the first or the antithesis (the opposite) of the first. Think of the semi-colon as a balance point between two equally important ideas.
To err is human; to forgive divine.
The conditions in the laboratory were erratic; thus, the experiment failed.
The starting line-up played badly; however, the substitute players performed exceptionally well.
If you are in any doubt about whether or not a semi-colon is appropriate, use a full stop.
1.35 Avoid excessively long compound sentences made up of a number of independent clauses separated by semi-colons. Normally, the compound sentence should have only two independent clauses, and thus there should be only one semi-colon within the body of the complete sentence. See 1.32 above.
1.36 Do not separate the two independent clauses in a compound sentence with a comma when there is no co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, so, or, yet, for) to go with it. In this case use a semi-colon or a full stop. When you put a comma between two independent clauses without a co-ordinating conjunction, you create a comma splice, one of the most frequent basic errors in punctuation. Notice the following example of this mistake:
The crew is arriving today, we should start work soon.
In the above example, there are two main ideas separated by a comma. There is no co-ordinating conjunction with the comma. This is an example of a comma splice. To correct it, you need to do one of three things: (a) replace the comma with a full stop, thus creating two simple sentences, (b) change the comma to a semi-colon, or (c) insert a co-ordinating conjunction right after the comma (in this case the best one would be either and or so), as follows:
crew is arriving today. We should start work soon.
The crew is arriving today; we should start work soon.
The crew is arriving today, so we should start work soon.
1.37 The basic rule for punctuating compound sentences given above in 1.33 (the semi-colon) applies also if you choose to introduce the second independent clause with a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, therefore, consequently, moreover, thus, and so on). You still place the semi-colon at the end of the first independent clause to indicate the first idea is now over. Note that it is customary to place a comma after such an introductory conjunctive adverb. Here are some examples.
I am sick; consequently, I am not going to work.
We were supposed to read the book; however, I forgot.
Salieri thinks that God is cheating him; thus, he decides to fight against God.
1.38 Unlike the co-ordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, so, yet, for) which must come right at the start of the second independent clause, a conjunctive adverb (e.g., however, therefore, consequently, moreover, thus, and so on) can appear almost anywhere in the second independent (not simply at the start). If you put the conjunctive adverb in the middle of the second independent clause, the semi-colon stays right at the end of the first main clause (the break between the two ideas), and the conjunctive adverb has commas around it. The semi-colon, in other words, does not follow the conjunctive adverb. Notice the following examples:
You wrote a poor report; however, you can try again.
You wrote a poor report; you can, however, try again.
You wrote a poor report; you can try again, however.
Notice that the semi-colon does not move with the conjunctive adverb. It stays at the break between the two independent ideas.
1.39 A complex sentence has an independent clause and at least one dependent clause. The dependent clause almost always begins with a word which indicates its dependent nature (e.g., although, if, since, after, because, and so on). Commonly the dependent clause comes before the main clause. Here are some examples:
When I had finished the job, I went home.
Since we are on strike, I will not report for work.
Before he explores his political theory, Hobbes describes his view of human nature.
Although Elisa seems to be strong, she is, in fact, quite weak.
The order of these clauses may be reversed, although the dependent clause commonly comes first in the complex sentence.
1.40 In a complex sentence, the main idea, the one you want to emphasize, should be in the independent clause, and the less important idea (e.g., the circumstances like the time, place, conditions) should be in the dependent clause. Try not to reverse the emphasis in a sentence with illogical subordination.
I was driving along the highway when suddenly the car exploded.
The main idea here—the explosion—is in the dependent clause. Unless you deliberately intend to emphasize the circumstances rather than the explosion, this sentence is an example of illogical subordination. Rewrite so that the more important idea is in the independent clause:
While I was driving along the highway, the car suddenly exploded.
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