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Semicolons Separate Clauses
Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other but could stand on their own as sentences if you wanted them to
Here’s an example:
I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.
The two clauses in that sentence are separated by a semicolon and could be sentences on their own if you put a period between them instead:
I have a big test tomorrow. I can’t go out tonight.
Semicolons Create Variety
One reason you might choose to use a semicolon instead of a period is if you wanted to add variety to your sentence structure; for example, you might use a semicolon if you thought you had too many short, choppy sentences in a row.
Semicolons Emphasize Relatedness
Another reason to use a semicolon is to draw attention to how related your two clauses are. The semicolon in our example sentence highlights that the reason you can’t go out tonight is that you have a big test tomorrow. You wouldn’t write, “English is my fifth period class; I can’t go out tonight,” because those two main clauses have nothing to do with each other. I can’t think of a single reason why English being fifth period would mean you can’t go out tonight.
Semicolons and Coordinating Conjunctions
You should never use a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction such as “and,” “so,” and “but” to join two main clauses; that’s the job of a comma. If you want to use a coordinating conjunction you’d write it like this:
I have a big test tomorrow, so I can’t go out tonight.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of instances where it’s OK to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction.
Semicolons Can Join Complex Clauses with a Coordinating Conjunction
First, if you have a long sentence with multiple independent clauses, and some of those clauses contain internal punctuation such as a comma, you can use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction to make the separation between clauses more clear. Here’s an example:
If you want me to go out tonight, you need to help me with my homework first; and if you say no, I’ll know that you don’t really care about going out.
Because each half of that long sentence has a conditional clause that must contain a comma, it’s OK to use a semicolon before the “and” that separates those two parts. You could make them two sentences, but you don’t have to; and because they are so closely related, it makes a lot of sense to have them be together separated by the semicolon. The “and” after the semicolon is actually optional in this case, but I think it adds to the flow of the sentence.
Semicolons Can Separate Items in a Complex List
The second instance in which it’s OK to use a semicolon with a coordinating conjunction also occurs when you have an excess of commas: it’s when you need to separate list elements that contain commas.
Here’s an example:
This week’s winners are Joe from Reno, Nevada; Diane from Phoenix, Arizona; and Matt from Irvine, California.
Because each item in the list requires a comma to separate the city from the state, you have to use a semicolon to separate the items themselves.
Semicolons with Conjunctive Adverbs and Transitional Phrases
Finally, you use a semicolon when you use a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase to join two main clauses.
Conjunctive adverbs are words such as “however,” “therefore,” and “indeed,” and they “usually show cause and effect, sequence, contrast, comparison, or other relationships” (1). For example, “I have a big test tomorrow; therefore, I can’t go out tonight.” (The comma after the conjunctive adverb is optional.)
A transitional phrase is something like “for example” or “in other words.” A sentence with a transitional phrase could read as follows:
I have a big test tomorrow; as a result, I can’t go out tonight.
Coordinating Conjunctions Versus Conjunctive Adverbs
Sometimes people seem frustrated because they have to remember to use commas with coordinating conjunctions and semicolons with conjunctive adverbs most of the time. If you can’t keep the difference straight in your head, it can help to remember that commas are smaller than semicolons and go with coordinating conjunctions, which are almost always short two- or three-letter words—small words, small punctuation mark.
Semicolons are bigger and they go with conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases, which are almost always longer than three letters—bigger words, bigger punctuation. I’ll put a list of the different kinds of connectors on the website.
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