Let’s face it. It may have been a long time since your last high school or college writing class. Sure, there are things you remember about it; maybe that 10 page paper you were assigned on “Religious Symbolism of Old Man and the Sea” left a permanent scar.
But sometimes there are things we forget. Spelling is one. Basic punctuation is another entirely. And a good example of this is when to use semicolon vs comma.
Now, determining where to use an exclamation point and when to use a question mark isn’t rocket science. Most people can figure that out. But the comma vs semicolon decision can be tricky for even the most prolific of writers. Heck, even we get confused sometimes, and we consider ourselves to be geniuses. Here is how to choose the correct punctuation for your sentences.
Semicolon vs Comma: A Grammar Refresher Course
To begin this semicolon vs comma refresher course, let’s first look at a few definitions. If you already remember the meanings of these words, feel free to skim this. All definitions are courtesy of Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Subject – the person or thing that is being discussed or described
Predicate – the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject
Clause – a group of words containing a subject and predicate and functioning as a member of a complex or sentence
Phrase – a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
So, a typical sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate. A clause contains both a subject and a predicate, but may not be a complete sentence. And a phrase is, generally speaking, never a complete sentence. Here’s what we mean:
Zoe likes to spit.
In this sentence, Zoe is the subject. Likes to spit is the predicate. The sentence is, as it stands, a complete sentence but may also be called an independent clause. Got it? Good.
Well, unfortunately that’s not all. We’ll get to the comma vs semicolon thing in just a second, but you know that not all sentences are that simple. So let’s look really quickly at just how complex sentences can be.
Semicolon vs Comma: Combining Clauses and Phrases
We’ve determined that Zoe likes to spit. She’s got quite a temper, so it’s best not to make her upset. But there’s more to Zoe than just a love for expectorating.
Zoe likes to cuddle with her stuffed bunny.
A complex soul, this Zoe. Especially when we put the two sentences together.
Zoe likes to spit and she likes to cuddle with her stuffed bunny.
Now we’ve created a compound sentence. A compound sentence has two subjects and two predicates, and is defined as being comprised of two independent clauses which express related ideas. In this case, they’re related in that they both describe Zoe.
Here’s where the semicolon vs comma question comes in. See, that sentence sounds pretty awkward, and we’d like to make it more reader-friendly. We can do this in two different ways.
Zoe likes to spit; however, she also likes to cuddle with her stuffed bunny.
Zoe likes to spit, which contradicts her love for cuddling with a stuffed bunny.
In the first example, we’ve merely combined both sentences into one, using a semicolon to separate the two independent clauses. In the second example, we’ve slightly rephrased the second sentence to agree a bit more with the first. “Which contradicts her love…” is a dependent clause. It’s an incomplete thought. Therefore, it’s necessary to use a comma instead of a semicolon in this sentence.
In short, a semicolon is used when two complete sentences (independent clauses) are joined. Use a comma everywhere else.
Semicolon vs Comma: Commas are Sneaky
In grade school you were likely taught that a comma signifies a pause. This isn’t necessarily so. In fact, commas have a very specific place and it’s generally incorrect to use them solely when you want the reader to pause.
We’ve already discovered that a comma should be used to separate a dependent clause from the rest of its sentence. But there are other places where commas belong.
First, use a comma before a coordinating conjunction. Coordinating junctions are words like but, yet, however, and, though and for.
Zoe likes to spit, but she also likes to cuddle her stuffed bunny.
Secondly, when you have a sentence which begins with a dependent clause you’ll use a comma after that clause.
After Zoe spits, she cuddles her stuffed bunny.
Thirdly, you’ll use commas to separate lists of words or items.
Zoe likes to spit, to cuddle her stuffed bunny, to throw and to hug her mama.
Use commas before appositives. Sometimes you’ll also use commas after appositives. Appositives are used to clarify a sentence.
Zoe, a grown woman, likes to spit.
Commas are used when addressing someone.
Zoe, please stop spitting at me.
Commas are used in quite a few other ways as well. You’ll use them in addresses, in dates, when using a freestanding yes or no, after introductory adverbs and when writing quotations. They’re sneaky little punctuation marks and at times it may be difficult to tell when they’re correct. Want a simple rule to follow?
When in doubt, leave it out.
Semicolon vs Comma: A Summary
We hope this clarified a bit of the semicolon vs comma confusion for you. Refreshing your memory on just a bit of basic sentence structure seems to help most writers from time to time.
In short, commas are used everywhere. They’re used in the beginning of sentences. They’re used at the end of sentences. Commas are used in the middle of sentences to join two dependent clauses. In fact, commas are frequently overused – we do it ourselves.
Semicolons, on the other hand, are fairly simple. If you have two independent clauses which each convey a complete thought, you’ll join them with a semicolon.
Commas are confusing as hell; however, semicolons are very easy to figure out.