A benefit to working in the Harbert Writing Center is the breadth of students with which I work. I help students from freshmen to seniors at all stages of the writing process (outlining, drafting, revising, etc.), which allows me to track writing trends and address problems that I see across a wide section of students’ work. One problem I noticed over the previous semester was a tendency to jam independents clauses together without any of the proper punctuation and/or conjunctions.
Example: I read the book it is good.
(The above example did not come from a student’s paper. I made it up off the top of my head, which is why it’s so complex and layered)
For the uninitiated, an independent clause is a grammatical unit, with an identifiable subject and predicate- the two main ingredients required to make a sentence. However, an independent clause is not always a sentence on its own; sometimes a single sentence is two independent clauses connected by a semicolon or a comma paired with a conjunction. The example sentence is incorrect as it pairs two independent clauses together without any of the necessary connective tissue to make it work grammatically. It is two sentences jammed together to form a broken syntactical mess. There is hope, however, for our example, as there are three ways to fix it, however each method has its own meaning and some sentence connecting methods are more appropriate than others.
This is the simplest way to connect independent clauses to each other. When a writer has two independent thoughts, they may separate them into to two sentences by ending the first thought with a period, creating a space, and starting the second thought with a capital letter to denote the beginning of a new sentence. The example would read “I read the book. It is good.” Separating the clauses into two sentences indicates that the thoughts are independent of one another. However, its important to remember that context is important. Since the second clause follows from the first, separating these clauses into two different sentences can create a problem. The second sentence in the pair starts with a pronoun lacking an antecedent. The pronoun “it” replaces “book,” which is close in page proximity but the word is not in the same sentence. The distance created by the period makes the second sentence imprecise and vague, which is fine is that is the desired effect. Otherwise, if the writer wishes to properly connect these clauses without rewriting either of them, then they will have to look to other connection methods.
I frequently see this connector misused on the internet and in student writing. Semicolons, as clause connections, are used to pair two independent clauses together; they can also be used to denote items in a series when the items have both a subject and predicate. The example, when paired by a semicolon reads, “I read the book; it is good.” Independent clauses paired with a semicolon have a closer connection than two separate sentences. The period, which serves as a dead stop for sentence flow, is replaced by the semicolon at the end of the first thought and the space remains, but the first letter of the second thought remains in lowercase; this shows the reader that the two thoughts are independent of one another but allows the reading eye to proceed, uninterrupted by a capital letter. The semicolon works just fine for our example, but the next connector for independent clauses works even better for it.
The compound sentence is a frequent flier for clause connections. It takes both independent thoughts and connects them together with a comma followed by a conjunction. Our example could become “I read the book, and it is good.” For this case, the word “and” is the correct conjunction, but there are many possible conjunctions which carry their own implications. “And” implies that I know the book is good because I read it. If “but” is used as the conjunction (“I read the book, but it was good”) indicates a negative expectation going into the book, but in order for this sentence to be technically correct it needs more information. “I read the book [expecting it to be bad for whatever reason], but [I found out that] it is good.” There are several other conjunctions available, but I wanted to focus on the most common two. When you use compound sentences, play around with the conjunctions to see how they change the meaning of the sentence. The connection formed by the compound sentence creates a close relationship between the two independent clauses that unites them as one sentence. Compound sentences are the closest connection that two independent clauses can have, and it works perfectly for our example, as the language of each thought is reliant (to a degree) on the other.
Is this not primary school stuff?
Indeed it is, but there is no shame in needing a refresher every once in a while. School curricula moves so fast that it is unreasonable to demand anyone to remember every single lesson they learned in school, especially as people get older and no longer have the lessons drilled into their brains every year. That is why so many books exist for the purpose of helping people refresh or relearn the way the confusing and convoluted English language works. My book recommendation for this Writing 101 article is called Prose Style. This is a book I used in my English 500 class, in the form of PDFs, and they have been an invaluable tool in my writing belt. The subjects discussed in the book do seem basic but they are explained in such a way that will make writers say either, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been doing” or “Why haven’t I been using these?” Additionally, this book has one of the widest gaps between new and used prices that I have ever seen. Definitely check this one out if you want your writing to improve.