Commas and Semicolons….The Comma (or semicolon?) Chameleon

by Brenda Bernstein on February 17, 2010

Sam’s Note To Readers: Brenda Bernstein, the Essay Expert is back!  This time, I asked her to address something that makes my editor Kellie Bowers want to smash her laptop over my head.  (Luckily she lives 800 miles away).  My use of commas and semicolons is awful!  Maybe this will help you as much as it helped me.  Enjoy!


“Comma? 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.


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.


    evil grammar

    Dr. Evil makes some grammatical errors

  • [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.

Sam’s Note: My mother pointed out an interesting example she heard from somewhere.   Think about the comma placement when you say the phrase “let’s eat, grandma.”    You get either “let’s eat, grandma” or  “Let’s, eat grandma.”  It is probably obvious which one to use.  But – If you forget the comma all together, you just suggested we should eat grandma.   I got a laugh out of this.    Back to Brenda:


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.commas and semicolons

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.


How Many Sentences are in this Sentence?

The next thing to know is that semicolons are the proper punctuation 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. The first and third examples demonstrate this use. You can see that the following all could 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.

As Stephanie Eskins explained in a recent LinkedIn comment, 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 coordinating conjunction 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, as they are here, 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.”).

  • [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.


Sam’s Conclusions:  I made Brenda stop writing here.  So many rules — and I wanted you all to take a breather.   She will be back soon to finish her article by taking a look at using commas and semicolons in resumes and lists.


Brenda BernsteinAbout the author: Brenda Bernstein is the Founder and Senior Editor at TheEssayExpert.com. She holds B.A. in English from Yale and a J.D. from New York University School of Law, and has been coaching individuals and companies on their writing projects for over 10 years. The Essay Expert provides assistance with college essays, LinkedIn profiles, resumes, cover letters, web copy, business writing, and custom writing projects.

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  • jaddess

    EXCELLENT!!!

  • Chuck

    “3. If the sentences are closely related, as they are here replace the comma with a semi-colon:”

    Shouldn't there be a comma after “here?”

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Chuck – yes. This is what happens when I, Sam Diener, play the editor. You can't expect someone like me who is a horrible grammarian to edit someone as accomplished as Brenda :)

  • theessayexpert

    Thanks for taking the bullet Sam, but this was a typo on my part! Chuck you are absolutely correct.

  • http://www.socialcreeper.com/ Shank

    Great Stuff. It Helps a lot.

    Shank
    http://www.socialcreeper.com

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  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Chuck – yes. This is what happens when I try to play the editor. You can't expect someone like me who is a horrible grammarian to edit someone as accomplished as Brenda :)

  • theessayexpert

    Thanks for taking the bullet Sam, but this was a typo on my part! Chuck you are absolutely correct.

  • http://www.socialcreeper.com/ Shank

    Great Stuff. It Helps a lot.

    Shank
    http://www.socialcreeper.com

  • Pingback: Commas and Semicolons… The Comma (or Semicolon?) Chameleon – by Brenda Bernstein | The Essay Expert Blog

  • Anon

    really informative & helpful;finally understood the real, usable difference.

  • Thomas Bertin

    Sam -

    What a great article! Spelling and grammatical errors in the business setting have always been one of my pet peeves.

  • http://dancecommunications.com Jim Pennypacker

    Hi Brenda. Great article. Now can you get Sam to STOP USING ALL CAPS!

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Where did I do all that!?

  • http://www.samdiener.com Sam Diener

    Where did I do all that!?

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