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Serenity Carr, Assistant Editor
How to Use a Comma and a Semicolon: What's the Difference
Tuesday February 25th 2020
Question
When do you use a comma vs. a semicolon?  — Simran, United States
Answer

Commas and semicolons both can separate phrases, clauses, or sentences, but they are used in different ways. Below are some of the most common ways commas and semicolons are used.

 

Commas

Commas have several different uses:

A comma separates two complete sentences joined by and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet.

  • I ate dinner, and I went to the movies. ["I ate dinner" and "I went to the movies" are both complete sentences.]
  • She finished top of her class, but she was struggling to find work.

A comma is used between a dependent clause (incomplete sentence) and an independent clause (complete sentence).

  • After I ate dinner, I went to the movies. ["After I ate dinner" is not a complete sentence.]
  • While running out the door, I tripped on the doormat.

A comma is used on both sides of additional information about a noun.

  • The teacher, the only adult in the room, made sure we were all present before beginning her lecture. ["the only adult in the room" tells us more about the noun "teacher."]
  • I found my missing shoe, the left one, under my bed.

A comma is used after conjunctive adverbs such as nonetheless, nevertheless, finally, similarly, moreover, and furthermore and after adverbs of manner such as happily, quietly, slowly, and noisily when they are at the beginning of a sentence.

  • Finally, she was able to take a week off work to go visit her family.
  • Slowly, the puppy began to trust us.

A comma is used to separate items in a list,

  • She ate an apple, a sandwich, a cookie, and a granola bar. [The comma before and is called the Oxford Comma or the Series Comma and is not always necessary.]

A comma is used to separate two or more adjectives that modify the same noun.

  • The shirt had blue, green, yellow, and orange flowers on it.

A comma is used between a dialog tag (such as "she said") and a quotation.

  •  He said, "I'll be there in five minutes."
  • "I'm s-so afraid," the child stammered.
  • She yelled down the stairs, "wait for me!"

 

Semicolons

A semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses [=complete sentences] that are related.

  • The manager was having trouble keeping track of expenses; his spreadsheet was not helping.

A semicolon is used to separate items in a list when the items themselves have commas.

  • The top shelf of her bookcase had math, science, and nature books; the second shelf had biographies, memoirs, and self-help books; and the third and fourth shelves had fiction and literature.

 

How Commas and Semicolons Relate

When a comma separates two complete sentences joined by a conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, or yet) the comma and the conjunction can be replaced with a semicolon.

  • I ate dinner, and I went to the movies. = I ate dinner; I went to the movies.
  • She finished top of her class, but she was struggling to find work. = She finished top of her class; she was struggling to find work.

A semicolon can also be replaced by a period and a capital letter.

  • The manager was having trouble keeping track of expenses; his spreadsheet was not helping. = The manager was having trouble keeping track of expenses. His spreadsheet was not helping.
  • I ate dinner; I went to the movies. = I ate dinner. I went to the movies.
  • She finished top of her class; she was struggling to find work. = She finished top of her class. She was struggling to find work.

 

I hope this helps.

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