Writing Tips: How to Use Commas and Semicolons Part 2

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Need some writing help with how to use commas and semicolons? Check out Part 1 of this series if you haven’t already, then read on for more punctuation rules and how to fix a comma splice.

Semicolons are the proper punctuation marks to use when you want to connect two strings of words that could stand on their own as full sentences, but that are so closely related that you want to make them part of the same sentence. If you read my article last week, you saw some examples of that.  Here’s how it works:

The following word strings could all stand as sentences on their own:

  • In high school I was certain of my academic strengths.
  • The daughter and younger sister of doctors, I excelled in math and science and dreaded every English course I was ever forced to take.
  • Addison’s Disease is a chronic adrenal insufficiency that leads to liver failure, kidney failure, effusions, and in some cases, death.
  • I was determined that it would not kill my brother.

When you put a comma between two sentences, it is called a “comma splice” and it is an incorrect way to use a comma! The following is an INCORRECT use of a comma:

[INCORRECT] In high school I was certain of my academic strengths, I excelled in math and science.

See how each of the two parts of the sentence can stand on its own?

  • In high school I was certain of my academic strengths.
  • I excelled in math and science.

You can fix a comma splice in one of three ways:

1.  Replace the comma with a period:

[CORRECT] In high school I was certain of my academic strengths. I excelled in math and science.

2. Add a conjunction, such as “or” or “and,” after the comma:

[CORRECT] In high school I was certain of my academic strengths, and excelled in math and science.

3. If the sentences are closely related, replace the comma with a semi-colon:

[CORRECT] In high school I was certain of my academic strengths; I excelled in math and science.

Conversely, if you have two parts of your sentence that do NOT stand on their own, it is INCORRECT to connect them with a semicolon. Here are two examples of an INCORRECT use of a semicolon:

[INCORRECT] Finally you can convert all those friends on Facebook into something useful; spreading the word about your skills, experience and what a great hire you would make.

Can you see that while the first part of this sentence is a sentence (“Finally you can convert all those friends on Facebook into something useful.”), the second part of the sentence is NOT a sentence (“Spreading the word about your skills, experience and what a great hire you would make.”).  Therefore  it is INCORRECT to divide them with a semicolon; a comma would have been the correct punctuation mark to insert between them.

Another example:

[INCORRECT] The Justice Action Center would allow me to study and work in anti-discrimination law and criminal law; a few areas for which I have gained a passion.

Again, the second part of this sentence, “a few areas for which I have gained a passion,” does NOT stand on its own as a sentence, so we need a comma.

If you use your ear here, you’ll HEAR the difference.  Read the sentences aloud, and you will hear an upward inflection after the word “useful” in the first example and “law” in the second example. This upward inflection indicates what?  You got it. A comma.

Here are the correctly punctuated sentences:

[CORRECT] Finally you can convert all those friends on Facebook into something useful, spreading the word about your skills, experience and what a great hire you would make.

[CORRECT] The Justice Action Center would allow me to study and work in anti-discrimination law and criminal law, a few areas for which I have gained a passion.

Are you working on an academic paper, cover letter, college application essay, or other writing project? Do you still have questions about whether you’ve used commas and semicolons correctly?  Contact The Essay Expert for professional writing help!

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4 Responses to “Writing Tips: How to Use Commas and Semicolons Part 2”

  1. Brenda! Wow – fantastic. This is explained so clearly and succintly. Can’t WAIT for how you do the colon.

  2. Brenda! Wow – fantastic. This is explained so clearly and succinctly. Can’t WAIT for how you do the colon.

  3. Laya Bajpai says:

    Brenda,
    This is one of the best lessons in the use of semi-colon, and comma and what is comma splice and how to correct it. You should be a grammar teacher. You are just excellent!

  4. Thank you for your comment Judy. You are correct that no comma is required in this sentence. For my ear it works better. I do not think it is incorrect, though I would be willing to be proven wrong!

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