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Pesky Punctuation: Joining Independent Clauses

Now we’ve covered the basics of punctuation by revisiting some school-day definitions and exploring terminal marks, it’s time to turn our attention to the second use of punctuation: joining clauses. Once you grasp this, you’ll find punctuation that much easier because clauses are joined by commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes—basically everything which gives everyone trouble.

There’s a lot of ground to cover with joining clauses, which is why this post focuses solely on independent clauses. We’ll get to joining independent and dependent clauses, restrictive and non-restrictive, in the next post.

Joining Independent Clauses

Joining two independent clauses forms a compound sentence. They may be connected using a comma, a colon, a semicolon, or a dash. However, which of these four marks is appropriate depends on the type of bond. By this, I simply mean how the two clauses are to be joined. Bonded. Is it by an adverb, a transitional expression, a coordinate conjunction, or is punctuation alone enough?

BOND #1 – COLONS, SEMICOLONS, and DASHES

We’ll start with punctuation alone. If there is no conjunction or adverb in the way, two independent clauses can be directly joined by a colon, semicolon, or dash.

Colons and Semicolons: Which is used rests upon the relationship between the two clauses being joined.

Colons are used to join together two independent clauses in which the second introduces an element or a series that further illustrates what has been stated in the first (IND: IND). The first word following a colon is not capitalized unless it is a proper noun. When the colon comes before two or more sentences, or introduces dialogue, a quotation, or a question, the first word is capitalized.

For the exam, students are asked to bring the following: a ruler, a calculator, an eraser, and two pencils.

There was a choice of three dishes: fish, chicken, or pasta.

Semicolons act much the same as colons when joining independent clauses. Semicolons should be used when there is no conjunction joining the clauses and you want to show a close relationship between the first and second clause (IND; IND). Unlike the colon you are not adding to the first clause, but rather almost continuing the thought.

She needed a new watch to track and reach her fitness goals; no mere step-counter would do.

An accomplished artist, Mark decided to turn his efforts elsewhere; his real passion was dance.

Dashes: Dashes are one of those things you may see grammarians and editors “fighting” over; some love them, some don’t. As colons and semicolons, dashes in some way amplify the preceding clause. Versatile, dashes can be used in places of parentheses, commas, and colons. However, they are particularly effective when showing a sudden change in tone.

There was a choice of three dishes—fish, chicken, or pasta. (Colon could also be used.)

My dogs—Kylie, Roxy, and Charlie—are all very well-behaved. (Parentheses could also be used.)

Mr. Williams—the board superintendent—upheld the ban on cell phones during school hours. (Commas could also be used.)

You may have heard of the em dash and the en dash. Above are all examples of the em dash, while en dashes are used to connect numbers and words: 2000-2020, Paris-London, the score was 5-3.

Commas: Why aren’t comma’s included as a bond? Because by themselves they are insufficient to join two independent clauses. This only works when the series of independent clauses all have the same subject—She came, she saw, she conquered—otherwise, you end up with a run-on sentence. (If this is an issue for you, trying fixing a run-on sentence by replacing the comma with a semicolon, add a conjunction (Bond #4), make each independent clause its own sentence, or make all but one clause dependent.)

The other mistake writers often make with the comma is confusing compound sentences and compound predicates. A compound predicate is a single clause in which one subject governs two verbs.

Joan went shopping then cooked dinner.

A comma goes before the compound predicate if there is a chance readers may become confused as to the relationship between the two, but only if.

Joan will go shopping tomorrow, and on Sunday will cook roast for dinner. (Without the comma, “tomorrow and on Sunday” could be read as one unit of thought.)

BOND #2 – ADVERBS

There are many adverbs, but by definition an adverb is a word which modifies a verb, an adjective, or another verb. They commonly express manner, place, time, frequency, and degree. (A lot of -ly words, in short). Other common adverbs are: however, moreover, indeed, therefore, thus, and nevertheless. When joining two independent clauses a semicolon goes before the adverb, while a comma will typically follow the adverb (IND; adverb [,] IND).

Fresh lemons are essential when making a meringue; indeed, it will taste too sour otherwise.

The dog loved wearing its holiday bow tie; however, the cat would not stop pawing at theirs.

As with short adverbial phrases, no comma is needed after thus or therefore as the transition is abrupt and it does not need to be specially set apart.

Thus the jury stated their decision.

Therefore there are no more plums.

BOND #3 – TRANSITIONAL EXPRESSION

Transitional expressions are those such as in addition, for example, as stated, and namely. A semicolon will precede the transitional expression, while a comma will follow the expression (IND; transitional expression, IND).

I love a lot of seafood; namely, lobster and crab.

There are many ways to incorporate exercise into your summer evenings; for example, you could go on a family walk or bike ride.

BOND #4 – COORDINATE CONJUNCTION

A common and effective way to recall coordinate conjunctions is FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (It sure helped me!) When two independent clauses are joined by one of these words a comma is placed before the conjunction (IND, coordinate conjunction IND).

There was a big snowstorm last night, so the bus was an hour late.

My days are busy, yet I always find time to do a little reading.

However, the comma may be left out when the two clauses are short and there is little chance your readers will be confused.

There was a big snowstorm and the bus is late.

I like tea but my boyfriend likes coffee.

Phew! Take a breather, drop any questions in the comments below, and get ready for the next post in the Pesky Punctuation series: Joining Independent and Dependent Clauses.

Until then, Happy Writing!

Jennifer

Resources

1. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 3rd Ed.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Ed.