Semicolon vs. Comma – Difference and Usage

In all languages, not just English, writers use punctuation marks (or punctuation points as they are also called) to indicate things like pauses and full stops, to convey or demonstrate emotion, the ask questions or declare statements, and even to separate items in a list.

The reason they do this is because writing, unlike speaking, does not have the same natural cues. Void of punctuation marks, sentences would run together, making them difficult to read and even harder to understand. There are fourteen different types of punctuation marks commonly used in English grammar. They are:

  1. The period
  2. The question mark
  3. The exclamation mark (also called the exclamation point)
  4. The comma
  5. The semicolon
  6. The colon
  7. The dash
  8. The hyphen
  9. The parenthesis
  10. Brackets
  11. Braces
  12. The apostrophe
  13. Quotation marks, and
  14. The ellipses

Two punctuation marks that are most frequently used incorrectly are the comma and the semicolon.

All too often, people shy away from using the semi colon, largely out of fear because they do not understand how it is supposed to be used or because they wrongfully believe that a comma and a semi colon are interchangeable.

Learning how to properly use a comma and a semi colon will help you to improve your writing and result in writing that is more concise and polished. Get to know the rules for comma vs. semicolon, as you write, you will experience several occasions where a comma simply isn’t strong enough and a semi colon is needed.

Semicolon vs. Comma

Semi colons help writers to link ideas that are closely related when a comma isn’t strong enough to do the job. Semicolons, when used properly, will make your writing sound more refined and sophisticated.

There are guidelines for the proper use of semicolons. For example:

A semi colon is most typically used to join to independent clauses that are closely related to each other in thought or category.

Whenever a semi colon is used to unite two or more ideas (elements) in a single sentence, those ideas are established as having equal rank or position.

Some people read the newspaper online; others read it in print.

A semi colon should be used in the centre of two independent clauses that are joined by either conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.

However they choose to read, the community is allowed to have their preferences; they all have their preferred reading method.

A semi colon always goes between items in a list or a series whenever any of the items listed contain commas.

There are basically two ways to read the newspaper these days: in print, which is costly and may require a subscription; or in digital format, which is free but requires access to a computer and the Internet.

A semi colon must go between independent clauses that have been connected by coordinating conjunctions in the event that the clauses are punctuated with commas or if they are particularly lengthy.

Some people read the newspaper on their computer, tablet or even on their smartphone; but others, for their own reasons, prefer the looks and feel of a traditional printed newspaper.

A good writer never uses a comma when a semi colon should do the job.

Wrong: The dog is fluffy, it is also brown.
Right: The dog is fluffy; it is also brown.

In the above example, both parts of the sentence are examples of independent clauses, and as such, they should not be joined with a comma because there is no coordinating conjunction. This is called a comma splice.

Wrong: I like dogs, however, I hate the way they beg for food.
Right: I like dogs; however, I hate the way they beg for food.

In the above example, the conjunctive adverb -however- indicates a connection between two independent clauses, and a comma should not be used to connect the two if there is not a coordinating conjunction.

Wrong: I like chickens: they lay eggs, which are delicious, they also provide us with meat, which is also tasty, and they give us feathers which can be used for clothing and pillows.
Right: I like chickens: they lay eggs, which are delicious; they also provide us with meat, which is also tasty; and they give us feathers, which can be used for clothing and pillows.

In the above examples, it is unclear what the three items or elements in the list should be, since the items are all separated by commas.

5 Quick Rules for Semi Colon Use

Rule 1: Semi colons join like-minded independent clauses.

You can easily connect or bridge two closely related independent clauses with a semi colon. To look at that from another angle, the collection of words that happen prior to the semicolon should create a complete sentence and the collection of words that happen after the semi colon should also form a complete sentence. Each of those sentences should share a similar and logical connection.

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Example: We can go to the water park next week; Sunday mornings usually aren’t that busy.

Rule 2: Get rid of the conjunction when you use a semi colon

Keep in mind that a semi colon is not the only thing that you might use to join two independent clauses. Conjunctions (such as but, and, or) will also connect independent clauses. That being said, it is never advisable to use both a semi colon and a conjunction. This means that if you decide to use a semi colon you will use it instead of using and, if or but – not in addition to using and, if or but.

Example: I saw a bear outside of my window this morning; it was eating my neighbor’s chicken.

Rule 3: Semi colons should be used in a serial list.

It is possible to use semi coons in order to separate or divide elements of a list if the items are longer or if they contain punctuation. In situations like this, semi colons will help the readers to not only keep track of the items as they are divided, but it will also make it easier to understand.

Example: I needed to know the average starting salary range for warehouse laborers in the following cities: London, Ontario; Brantford; Ontario; Toronto, Ontario; Stratford, Ontario.

Rule 4: Semi colons are always used with conjunctive adverbs.

Whenever there is a conjunctive adverb that links two independent clauses, it is necessary and in good practice to use a semi colon. Some of the more common conjunctive adverbs are nevertheless, moreover, however, therefore, otherwise, then, likewise, finally and consequently.

Remember that these words will occasionally appear in other parts of a sentence; as such, the rule of the semi colon will only be applicable if it aids the conjunctive adverb in connecting two independent clauses.

Example: Her mother had told her not to walk alone at night; however, Sarah refused to be afraid and stuck to the well lit areas.

Rule 5: A semi colon can be used to create an emoji.

The semi colon is 50% of the winking eye emoji. And, while emojis will never replace classic English language, they can be used to dd emphasis and convey emotion in certain situations, such as personal emails or text messages.

Example:

What is a semicolon?

A semi colon, or a semicolon, is a punctuation mark that is used to separate two tightknit independent clauses. That is to say, provided they have not been connected by a coordinating conjunction. Semi colons might also be used in the place of commas in order to separate various items in a list – especially if the items in the list contain commas.

How to use a semicolon correctly

Truth be told, many people avoid using a semi colon because they don’t quite understand what it is for, or how to use it properly.

A semi colon is always proceeded by a lower case letter, except for when the first letter would typically be capitalized (as would be the case for proper nouns.) Modern linguists and style guides prefer that there be no space before the semi colon and only a single space after the semi colon. It is also suggested that semi colons be placed outside ending quotation marks, however, this preference only recently came to light.

A semi colon is used specifically to  join to independent clauses. Independent clauses are statements that, on their own, could be considered to be complete sentences. Where the period would have normally gone at the end of the first sentence, a semi colon will go. From here, add a single space and then write out the second sentence.

Never use a semi colon in addition to conjunctions. Conjunctions are words like and, or, or, nor, for, so, and yet. If you decide that you must use a conjunction, you should use a comma instead of a semi colon. Remember, it is one or the other, but never both. Or was that: Remember, it is one or the other; never both?

As you write, you should be using semi colons whenever you wish to connect or join two statements (or independent clauses) that are somehow related or contrasting to one another. You may also use a semi colon to join multiple sentences that have their own internal punctuation. Using a comma instead of semi colon could result in a comma splice, and also detract from the impact and connection between the clauses.

A semi colon can also be used if you have to create a list of items that are also separated by commas. This is most typical when you are listing dates, names and descriptions.

What is a comma

A comma is a mark of punctuation that shares its shape with the apostrophe, but differs because it is placed in the baseline of the text. The comma is used in several contexts, most often for separating specific parts of a sentence or text – such as clauses and items in a lists containing three or more items. Comma gets its name from the Greek word komma, which is literally translated to mean a cut-off or disjointed piece.

When to use a comma in a sentence?

In the vast majority of cases, the comma demonstrates that the words the come before the comma are not closely linked to the words that come after the comma. The comma serves a number of different purposes in the English language, such as separating clauses or items in a list of three or more items.