What a comma CAN’T do
‘Not commas again’, I hear you groan.
Well… yes, because I promised (or threatened) a post about semicolons. Semicolons step in where commas (should) fear to tread.
Editors frown when two independent clauses (or complete sentences, if you prefer) are joined by a comma.
They call this a comma splice…
She walked on without stopping, Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
There are three ways to avoid a comma splice:
1) Separate the clauses into two sentences.
She walked on without stopping. Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
2) Join them using one of the words and, or, nor, but, yet or for (known as coordinating conjunctions) – and that comma.
She walked on without stopping, yet Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
3) Change the comma to a semicolon.
She walked on without stopping; Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
So far, so easy.
Just to confuse us…
(there’s always something, isn’t there?)
Several websites add rules for clauses joined by subordinating conjunctions.
These are words like moreover, nevertheless, consequently, likewise, however, otherwise, therefore, namely, finally, then, also… and ‘joining phrases’ such as, as a result.
Subordinate clauses rely on the first clause in some way and can be joined with a semicolon.
She walked on without stopping; however, Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
Having only just discovered this rule, I’ve since realised I don’t need to remember it. Neither do you.
I usually write such clauses as separate sentences.
She walked on without stopping. However, Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
Therefore, when I do join them, to vary sentence lengths, I use a semicolon so as not to create a comma splice.
Which brings us back to where we started and would be a good place to stop, wouldn’t it?
Sadly, there is more.
What a semicolon CAN’T do
A semicolon cannot join an independent clause and a dependent one.
She walked on without stopping; showing she didn’t care about my feelings.
She walked on without stopping, showing she didn’t care about my feelings.
Each side of the semicolon must form an independent clause that could stand on its own as a sentence.
Semicolons with too many commas
When a list includes items which themselves have commas (or are confusingly long), use semicolons to separate the items.
The choice for supper was fish and chips; ham, egg and chips; sausage, baked beans and chips; or pie and chips.
The family is now scattered between Chippenham, Wiltshire; Bath, Somerset; and Poole, Dorset.
When the first independent clause contains one or more commas, semicolons can be used with a coordinate conjunction.
She walked on, ignoring me, and turned the corner; but Jayne had always known how I felt about her.
In the same way that semicolons emphasise the start of a new item in a comma-studded list, they can emphasise the start of a new clause after a comma-studded first clause.
How about colons?
Colons introduce lists and anything else you’re about to define or explain.
Mum gave us a choice for supper: fish and chips; ham, egg and chips; sausage, baked beans and chips; or pie and chips.
The family is now scattered between three counties: Wiltshire, Somerset, and Dorset.
A colon signals that more information is on the way. Think of those two dots as an abbreviation of that is or ie.
But if you actually use those words (that is or ie) put a semicolon before them – see subordinating conjunctions, above.
The family is now scattered between three counties; that is, Wiltshire, Somerset, and Dorset.
A colon can emphasise contrast
Note that the clause before the colon is always a complete sentence: unlike the clause after it.
Colons can often be replaced by a dash, which is less formal and often used in fiction.
Note that the clause before the colon is always a complete sentence – unlike the clause after it.
I hope this has helped a little.
It’s helped me. I learned something while checking my facts.
As always, an online search will find further examples of all these points – and more.
It won’t be punctuation.
I’ve had enough of punctuation (does it show?)