Use Commas and Semicolons Effectively
Every writer at some point has probably asked themselves whether they should use a comma or a semi colon, as they are often seen as interchangeable. This is why the humble comma is abused, but both the semicolon and the comma provide different functions in your writing and shouldn’t be confused with one another.
Commas are used to show a very short pause in sentences or to separate various objects in a sentence or several items in a list. Semi-colons, however, are used to separate two independent clauses that are closely related. They are also useful when listing ideas or phrases, just like commas do, which is why they may confuse writers.
Effective writing is all about using words and punctuation to your advantage to produce the right effect. Commas in the right place can do this, especially when you want to create that momentary pause; a split second hesitation, for instance:
Her expression folded, and with her eyes veiled, he could no longer read her.
He wondered about the path ahead, the way it undulated in the dark.
The sky darkened and shadowed his face, like a satanic cloud.
But, he realised, it would never be worth it.
These samples are not complicated, and don’t have to be, but they have the commas in the right places and create a deft little pause before the narrative continues. Without being correctly punctuated, they wouldn’t have the same effect.
Use commas to correctly show a list within the narrative – this negates the need to use ‘and’ repetitively, for instance:
Jane brought the backpack packed with water, a torch, batteries, map and a compass.
He noticed he could get there by walking, catching a bus, taxi or his car.
Another common use of commas is known as the Oxford comma. This is another one that causes confusion with writers, but it’s not that complicated at all. It’s used after the penultimate item in a list and is placed before the conjunctions ‘and’ or ‘or’, however, it is not compulsory in grammar. It’s down to the personal style of each writer whether to use one, which is why you’ll see some writers use them and others don’t.
In the samples above I haven’t used an Oxford comma, but I could have done if I wanted to, for instance:
Jane brought the backpack packed with water, a torch, batteries, map, and a compass.
He noticed he could get there by walking, catching a bus, taxi, or his car.
If you use commas correctly, your narrative will read that much smoothly. It’s the difference between effective writing and bad writing. Incorrectly placed commas can make the narrative stutter, and the reader will interpret pauses where there none.
One thing you shouldn’t do with commas is to splice them. Comma splices divide two independent clauses without using a conjunction or a full stop, for example:
Jane grabbed the torch, she would need it after dark.
To tidy the sentence, we can remove the comma and insert a full stop or we can insert a semicolon. A placement of the full stop will create two independent clauses:
Jane grabbed the torch. She would need it after dark.
Here’s another comma splice example:
The daylight diminished, it would be dark soon.
In this next example, it needs a conjunction to separate the two independent clauses. This will make the sentence much clearer, for instance:
The daylight diminished and it would be dark soon.
The sentence is much better without the splice. The comma has been removed and in its place the conjunction ‘and’ brings the two clauses together.
But what about semicolons? What can they do?
They bring clarity to your narrative, just like commas do. The semicolon is also a pause, but it’s more prominent than a comma and it’s primarily used to separate two related sentences, for example:
David and Jane had always shared the same interests; their commonality made them inseparable.
Jane followed David’s advice and noticed the camp ahead; metres from the main road.
In these examples, the semicolon links the two related clauses and gives them equal position within the sentence. The use of a comma would have resulted in a comma splice.
They are also useful for lengthy, complex sentences which can’t be sustained by an inordinate amount of commas, unless you use full stops. But sometimes we need the odd lengthy sentence to vary the narrative, for example:
As he looked around the room, he realised she’d made a huge effort for him, as she always had done, and comforted by the muted candle glow, the romantic aura she’d created settled around him like a fine dust; not that romance interested Cole, no....he had only one thing on his mind.
This is a lengthy complex sentence, but it’s effectively punctuated with commas to highlight the slight pauses where they need to be, but also the semicolon is perfectly placed to nicely separate the clauses without making the narrative stutter. It’s good mixture of the two to make this sentence complex yet smooth.
And that’s what effective use of commas and semicolons do. They help the reader glide over the narrative without stumbling over words or tripping over sentences. Pay close attention to the placement of commas and semicolons, and how they will change your narrative.