“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: Punctuation tips comma semicolon

[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.


  1. Dear Essay Expert,

    I don’t quite agree with the comment that a semi-colon represents a full stop; I see it rather as a long pause. A full stop is a period and, when you think about it, a semi-colon is a combination of a pause and a stop (period on top and comma on bottom).

    Perhaps, because I love commas, I could be considered a Comma-adore (pronounce the “a” sound only once).

    • Thanks for your comment Eric. In my mind, the semi-colon, when used to separate what could be two full sentences, is closer to a full stop than to a pause; in a list of long items, the semi-colon inserts a long pause. My opinion: When used to separate two potentially distinct sentences, the semi-colon serves to connect two thoughts so related to each other that a period would serve as too wide of a separation.

  2. Dear Ms. Bernstein,

    Kudos and thanks for sharing your inflection-based pedagogy for comma and semicolon use.

    I found myself tutoring a teen for whom the sentence-structure approach — learning rules about and how to recognize independent and subordinate clauses, appositives, parenthetical remarks, and coordinating conjunctions — was as recondite as quantum mechanics. Moreover, I know well enough how to punctuate and had helped my own kids (all grown now) master a smattering of grammar’s nuances, I was anxious over the prospect of having to help a child who hadn’t fully grasped the basics; thus I Googled for guidance.

    Using the search term “inflective comma,” I noticed your site among Google’s first few results. It is “just what the doctor ordered.”

    I delivered an overview of what commas and semicolons do, telling my charge that if what precedes and follows the punctuation mark he inserted can stand alone as a complete sentence, use a semicolon; otherwise, use a comma. Imperfect guidance, yes, but given where the boy was, it seemed as fitting as any place to start. Next, I had him read this webpage, whereafter I clarified bits about which he inquired. Lastly, after telling him it’s called “punctuation” because it’s the written indicator of changes in a speaker’s voice, I suggested he simply speak his sentences in his head and “listen” for the pauses, variances in tone and emphasis, and so on, and simply toss in a comma where his inflection changes.

    What a difference! The young man, in mere minutes, went from period-only punctuation to near perfect. He was a little “comma happy,” but, hey, he used them, and, in turn, his voice came through, which, most importantly, means readers can unequivocally discern his meaning.

    The boy’s bright, his thoughts coherent, and on the strength of that, he’s been a B-student; however, his poor punctuation has kept him from being an A-student. He’s got a graded writing assignment due Friday, so we’ll see what happens and go from there. With any luck, he’ll soon be ready for em dashes, hyphens and ellipses. Whoo hoo!

    So, on his behalf and mine, thank you for maintaining this website. It was an inspirational godsend for me and a palpable aid for the young man I’m tutoring. As didactic Internet content goes, one can’t ask for more.


    I don’t know how the boy, who’s a tenth grader, became a poor punctuator; maybe he skipped class on those days. Who knows?

    It’s obvious, however, that between about the seventh and tenth grades, none of his teachers have acted to correct what is clearly but a mechanical issue, one that, given the boy’s manifested acumen and critical thinking skill, could long ago have been corrected. Perhaps they felt his earning Bs was good enough to obviate their bothering to intervene? In any case, their omission thus has unquestionably resulted in the boy’s grades and GPA being lower than he deserves.

    Who knows what impact that may have on his college prospects? Whatever affect it has, it likely won’t be positive, and that’s a doggone shame.

    • Thanks so much for sharing this story, Xelor! As a blogger, I never know what impact my writing will have, and I’m so thrilled I helped in this way. Your message was very well punctuated btw! Watch out for affect/effect 😉.

      • You’re welcome. I’m glad, then, that I bothered to share a little anecdote affirming for you that your contribution to the Internet has positively affected at least two people.

        The “affect” error is my bad; I didn’t carefully proofread my remarks, behavior, or lack thereof, really, that’s typical of my postings on the Internet. Failing to proofread results occasionally in my publicly making errors I know better than to make. The affect/effect error is an unusual one for me insofar as I’m an “old school” dude who thinks “impact” is only a noun and “effect” is both a noun and verb.

        FWIW, “affect/effect” sentence began as “I don’t know how that’ll affect his college acceptance outcomes,” but in revising it, I left “affect,” but I can’t say why. Worse, in my mind is the omission of a coordinating conjunction — “yet” would have done nicely — in the sentence that begins with “moreover.”

        Oh, well…we all make mistakes, but hopefully not too many. LOL

        God bless and all the best,

        • Hi Xelor, I figured there was an explainable oversight here. I am all-too-familiar with errors that come from editing. And I definitely observed that your grammar is meticulous! By the way, I try to keep “impact” as a noun as well.

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