“Comma v. Semicolon? Aaargh!! I’ll just pick one… I figure I have a 50% chance of getting it right.”
Does this sound like you? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s raise your average with these writing tips.
Did you know you can HEAR the difference?
The first thing I like to talk about with commas vs. semicolons is the sound of them. Commas are a pause with an invitation to continue, whereas semicolons are a full stop. You will be able to hear the difference. Read the following sentences aloud, paying attention to the *sound* of the punctuation:
[CORRECT] 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.
[CORRECT] I took a wide variety of classes, from psychology and sociology to business and criminal justice, hoping to find something, whether it were a class or a specific topic, that captivated my interest.
[CORRECT] 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.
Can you hear how your inflection goes up with each comma, and down with each semicolon? The upward inflection of the comma makes us think there is something more coming. The sound of a semicolon, on the other hand, is often the same sound that comes along with a period. It is more final. If you didn’t get that the first time around, go ahead and read the sentences above again, until you hear it.
Why is it useful to know how a punctuation mark sounds?
It allows you to read your sentence aloud and to determine whether you’ve chosen correctly. If you have a semicolon in your sentence but the inflection sounds right going up, you know to switch it to a comma. And vice versa.
Also, on a more basic level, if you find yourself pausing and inflecting upward and yet you have no comma there at all, add one! Here’s an example:
[INCORRECT] I have learned a lot about myself, and my capabilities throughout my career.
See how you want to pause and inflect upward after “capabilities” because of the comma after “myself”? Add a comma!
[CORRECT] I have learned a lot about myself, and my capabilities, throughout my career.
Or just delete the comma after “myself” and the inflection changes:
[CORRECT] I have learned a lot about myself and my capabilities throughout my career.
One more example:
[INCORRECT] Although, I had many successful closings, there were always a few that were unsuccessful.
Why put a comma after “Although” when you would not pause here when speaking?
[CORRECT] Although I had many successful closings, there were always a few that were unsuccessful.
I hope this lesson listening for commas v. semicolons was helpful.