I can give you rules and examples of how to use commas and semicolons correctly six ways to Sunday, but it might not stick. Not everyone learns the same way. What might make it click in your mind is looking at situations in which you use one or the other. So today I’m taking a new turn with my grammar tutorials and pitting the comma and the semicolon against each other. We’ll look at examples of using a semicolon correctly and incorrectly and hopefully answer the questions, “How do you use commas correctly?” and “How do you use a semicolon correctly?”
Example sentence: She packed: a towel for the beach, although it would get all of her things covered in sand, two swim suits, and sunblock, but it wouldn’t help much because it was only SPF 10.
What’s right: She packed: a towel for the beach, although it would get all of her things covered in sand; two swim suits; and sunblock, but it wouldn’t help much because it was only SPF 10.
Why: When you have items in a list and need to add additional comments to describe them, you separate each item with a semicolon. This is true even if one or more item doesn’t have an additional comment.
Find rule(s) here: Comma Rule 10 for the additional comment and Semicolon Rule 1 for the list/this example in general
Example sentence: They walked all around the city, they didn’t return until around midnight.
What’s right: They walked all around the city; they didn’t return until around midnight.
Why: You use a semicolon to connect two independent clauses to create one sentence. Also, with a comma, it becomes a run-on sentence.
Find rule here: Semicolon Rule 2
Example sentence: You’ve had a rough day; right?
What’s right: You’ve had a rough day, right?
Why: Although we think of the second part of that sentence as a separate entity from the first, it isn’t an independent clause, so you can’t connect the two with a semicolon. For clarification, an independent clause is a complete idea that has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as an independent sentence. (I can always go into more detail on this in another post, if you would like!)
Find rule here: Comma Rule 15
Example sentence: “I can’t believe it’s only Thursday;” we shared the same thought.
What’s right: “I can’t believe it’s only Thursday,” he said; we shared the same thought. OR “I can’t believe it’s only Thursday.” We shared the same thought.
Why: When separating what someone says from the rest of the sentence, you use a comma. However, the rules of what makes a complete sentence don’t change. “We shared the same thought” and “I can’t believe it’s only Thursday” are two separate ideas. The speaker of the quotation is not the same speaker of the internalized thought/narrator. Because of this, you can’t use a semicolon to connect them.
Find rule here: Comma Rule 5
Example sentence: I’m really tired, however, I can’t take a nap.
What’s right: I’m really tired; however, I can’t take a nap.
Why: These are definitely connected ideas, so it makes sense that you would combine them in one sentence. But whenever you connect two independent clauses, you have to use a semicolon to connect them. As for the word “however,” that’s an introductory word, so it needs comma.
Find rule here: Semicolon Rule 2 and Comma Rule 9