How to Use the Comma and Semicolon

How to Use the Comma and Semicolon
March 21, 2017 No Comments » For Authors, Writing Advice J.K. Allen

This month we are talking all about editing. This week we will clear up some common confusions people have about punctuation. People most commonly have a problem with commas, when to have them and when not to, and semicolons.

A lot of people find commas really tricky, but it’s really just a matter of knowing the rules, but there are quite a few rules to follow. Also, people mistakenly assume you need a comma wherever you would pause when reading aloud, but that’s not a true guide to follow. Often when we read aloud, we naturally pause where there is a comma. It is a shorter pause than a period. But often times we read our work for dramatic effect, pausing to emphasize different words. This doesn’t mean that a comma is naturally placed there. This could lead to incorrect comma placement. If you’re unsure whether you need a comma or not, review these rules. So let’s look at some of the more common comma rules:

  • Compound sentences. First, let’s talk about independent clauses. An independent clause has a subject and a verb and is a complete sentence in its own right. So, for example, “I went swimming today.” When you combine two of these using and, or, but, nor, for, yet, or so, you add a comma before the conjunction. “I went swimming today, and I saw a seagull.” If you remove the second “I”, you no longer have two clauses and you wouldn’t need the comma. “I went swimming and saw a seagull.”
  • After a prepositional phrase. Prepositions are words like under, over, around, when, after, on, etc. You need a comma after each prepositional phrase. “When I went swimming, I saw a seagull.”
  • Appositives are another word for renaming a phrase. For example, “my friend” is renamed to “Jenny”. So we have “My friend, Jenny, is good at math.” Or “My mother, a renowned cellist, taught me to play.” This does not cover “that” phrases.
  • After introductory adverbs like finally or however.
  • For parenthetical phrases. If there is extra information in your sentence that could be separated from the sentence by parenthesis and the sentence makes sense without it, then surround with commas. “Mary, who is my second cousin by marriage, is really good at sewing.”
  • For addresses. When you address someone or something, you surround the address with commas. “Jenny, did you finish yet?” Or “How are you, Tim?”
  • Between two adjectives where you could use “and” between them. “She was young and pretty. She was a young, pretty girl.”
  • To offset negation. “She was young, not old.” “Instead of old, use ancient.”
  • In a series of three or more. Also known as the oxford comma, use commas for lists of three or more. “I want to thank my parents, Einstein, and God.” If you don’t use this comma, the sentence becomes “I want to thank my parents, Einstein and God” which actually means Einstein and God are your parents thanks to the appositive rule. That’s why this comma should be used for clarification.
  • In dialogue. Use a comma before the quote and at the end of the quote if you use an attribution, like he said or she said.

She said, “How are you?”

“It’s late,” she said.

There are a few more comma rules regarding numbers and dates, but these are the most common ones. Hopefully this helps to clarify things.

Now on to semicolons. Semicolons can seem arbitrary, but you’ll understand them once you know the rules.

  • The point of the semicolon is to connect two independent clauses. These can be two separate sentences, but you want to show a connection or relationship between them so you join them together with a semicolon. “We were very close to my grandpa’s friend; we called her Aunt Shirley and would spend the night at her house.”
  • Do not use semicolons with a conjunction. Again those are and, or, but, for, so, yet, and nor.
  • Use semicolons as a sort of super-comma. Use a semicolon for a list of three or more when the clauses contain commas already. “When I was ten, we went to Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; and Los Angeles, California for a family trip.” Or “My idols are my mom, a hard stay-at-home worker; my sister, an optometrist; and my best friend, a mechanical engineer who travels the world.”

[bctt tweet=”Use a comma in a list of three or more. The Oxford comma provides extra clarification. #writingtips #amediting #OurWriteSide” username=”hijinkswriter”]

This last rule is just to keep things from getting too confusing when you have too many commas. How do you feel about punctuation rules? Are you a comma queen? Share your favorite rules below and happy editing!


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J.K. Allen Julia Allen received her BA in Creative Writing and English from Michigan State University. She did her senior thesis in poetry under the tutelage of Diane Wakoski, but has been focused primarily on fiction as of late. Common writing themes that can be found in her work address identity and the type of strength that can be found in ordinary people. Julia is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel and can be found at local cafes in her hometown when writing, and painting, drawing, or reading when not.

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