Thursday, April 11, 2013

GrammatiCats: Joining Sentences

You know, I'm not a huge expert when it comes to the finer points of social interaction. 

It's not that I don't enjoy meeting new folks.  It's just that when you spend most of your time nose-bagging Cheetos, molesting your word processor, and scratching yourself, it's sometimes hard to know how to take the people who wander into your life.  Do you want to be friends with me?  Are you just being nice because you have to?  Do you actually really want to do coffee sometime, or does this number you just gave me belong to a laundromat out in Cleburne?

I think ideas can be just as tricky to connect as people.  It's not that we don't know how to use a semicolon or trade business cards, but sometimes it's hard to intuit when to do what in order to make the right kind of connection. 

So that's what I'd like to look at today: a few ways to join up sentences, with an emphasis on where they each tend to be most effective.  Think of it as for your ideas!

Pinkie Rating: 3

1.  Semicolon 

Y'all know this one, right? 

The semicolon is the grammatical equivalent of putting Barbie and Ken together and making kissing noises: simple and direct.  It works best when the two sentences are closely related, especially where the second sentence answers, completes, or contrasts the first.  Used in this way, the semicolon is a one-to-one replacement for a period, so each sentence must be able to stand on its own for this to work well: don't let any "and" or "but" or little sister Skipper get between the true love of two independent clauses.

You can use this for everyday writing, but it's most often seen in academic and formal compositions.  (I get the sense that it's not such a common thing in fiction.)  The semicolon's hugely useful, but don't let it keep you from finding clearer and more specific ways to show relationships between your sentences, where appropriate.

2.  Colon

The colon does a whole mess of things: it introduces subtitles (as in the title of this very post!), shows speech (as in a play), and helps us tell time on our futuristic digital clocks.  As in the sentence before this one, it can also introduce a list of items, which may or may not be complete sentences in themselves.

When used to join sentences, the colon works best when the second sentence explains, enumerates, or summarizes the first.  It's almost like the first sentence makes you wonder, "oh yeah? what's that?" and the colon says "well boy, let me tell you."

3.  Comma + coordinating conjunction

Don't let the onslaught of alliteration and nerd-words put you off here.  A coordinating conjunction is just what we talked about previously: a word that connect two equal things.  Traditionally, the seven common coordinating conjunctions can be summed up as FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, & so.  They are pretty great, so when you use one of them to join two sentences, introduce it with the fanfare of a comma.

The nice thing about these bad boys is that they are flexible, versatile, and don't call attention to themselves.  You can use them almost anywhere.

4.  Subordinating conjunction

A subordinating conjunction joins two unequal things.  Both of them might technically be complete sentences, but one would be irrelevant without the other. 

Here, the lady-sentence is only present because it's underscoring and elaborating on the chin-up sentence's main point.  Notice how the subordinating conjunction, 'if', doesn't need a comma.  However,

If we move our subordinating conjunction up to the front, we now need to add a comma to hold its place between the two sentences.  As with #3 above, these are hard to overuse, as long as you consistently vary your vocabulary and sentence structure.

5.  Correlative conjunctions

The salt and pepper shakers of the grammar world!  These are conjunctions which always come as a matched pair. 

These include pairs such as:

either  /or
neither / nor
both / and
not only / but also

Can you hear how the first one sets you up to expect the second?  These don't have to join complete sentences (you could have "We need both corn pone and moonshine," for example,) but no matter what two things they connect, both elements need to be balanced.  ("We need both corn pone and bring us some moonshine" doesn't work so well.)  Correlative conjunctions are appropriate for almost any type of writing, but their distinct structure makes them stand out.  Try not to use these too frequently in a small space.

6.  Dash 

Technically this would be an em dash, but we already talked about how you can sub that out for an en dash with a space on either side.  Either one will be sufficient to slap together a couple of sentences!

Notice how the dash is basically doing the job of a semicolon or a colon: it's letting you glue together two sentences with just a dot of Elmer's all-purpose punctuation in between.  This is decidedly blue-jeans writing: it's quick and convenient, but don't overuse it, especially in a formal composition.

Whew.  That's certainly not everything, but it'll do for today! 

Hey, here's a question for those of you playing the home game: I can't decide what to do for L.  I was thinking "lay vs. lie" or else something about how to use linking adverbs (however, moreover, thus, therefore, etc.)  Or possibly something else?  What do y'all reckon?

Further Reading:
A graph showing the usage frequency of the semicolon from 1500 to 2008  TELL me that's not interesting as hell.
The Oatmeal: How to Use a Semicolon  In handy-dandy dinosaur-bear-party-gorilla comic format!
List of Subordinating Conjunctions  And what a list it is!
Correlative Conjunctions  This explains them better than I did, with good examples

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!
1.  Moses, courtesy of Gary
2.  Firefly, courtesy of Jarret O.
3.  Smudge, courtesy of Dr. C.
4.  Smudge again, likewise!
5.  Firefly again, likewise!
6.  Mystery kitties, courtesy of Jarret O.
7.  Our own horrified Peaches

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. Hugely useful. Especially when Microsoft word keeps trying to insert semicolons all over the place.

    1. I KNOW, RIGHT? It's like one of those dogs that keeps jumping and lunging up at your face - down, boy! Down!

      (And thanks for the props: Word is way easier to deal with when you can feel confident about occasionally telling the green squiggles to buzz off!)

  2. I'm never sure about semi-colons and equally unsure if I should trust Words suggestion of when to use them. It's given me some wrong corrections before.

    1. It's a mess! They can be used for other things besides joining sentences, which only adds to the confusion. (But when Word suggests a semicolon, you might try writing the sentence-parts in question with periods and capital letters: if the grammar-checker flags one or more of them as fragments, then you'll have a better idea of what the program's trying to fix.)

  3. Replies
    1. Ha! I see what you did there. Shoot, I didn't even think of smilies - now I'm going to have to wait all the way until NEXT April Fool's Day to do a smiley grammar post!

  4. Hmm... I seem to use semicolons a lot more now in my fiction, but that is because I just started using them not long ago. I had originally avoided them (and dashes) when writing.

    Trying to incorporate them, but if they aren't used much in fiction maybe I should refrain.

    Another sweet post, man! I am kind of jumping all over trying to catch up, but my whole evening was shot. Should be fun stressing over reading blogs ha :)