Welcome to the first installment of Feedback Friday, where I’ll answer your writing-related questions. If you want your question featured here, just leave a comment anywhere on this blog with the words “Feedback Friday” somewhere in your question or you can shoot me an email at thirdaxe at gmail dot com. Please, make sure you put “Feedback Friday” as the subject line.
Our first question comes from Heather in South Carolina, who wants to know the primary differences between a comma, a full colon, and a semicolon so that she knows when to use each one correctly.
In the written language, commas are intended to create a brief pause, mostly in order to separate ideas in the reader’s mind. For instance, if you have a series of three or more items such as a pen, a piece of paper, and an idea, use commas to separate out each of the items so they don’t run together and create confusion. You do not need a comma to separate two items joined by a conjunction, like Jack and Jill, because there is no need for a pause. The conjunction takes care of that.
You should also use commas to set off any kind of an introductory clause. For example, this is one type of introductory clause that needs to be set off with a comma. Because commas are the most misused piece of punctuation, I will eventually have a video in the lecture series dedicated just to their usage. Notice how at the end of the “because” statement, we need a slight pause to show that the introductory element is ending and the main sentence is beginning. Using commas after introductory statements increases clarity and decreases the chance of misunderstanding.
You also need commas to separate two full sentences joined by a conjunction. For instance, I want to make sure that you understand the basic fundamentals of when to use a comma, but I also don’t want to insult your intelligence by making it too simple. To that end, I’ll provide examples embedded throughout this post to illustrate when you should use them, so you can absorb for yourself the rhythm of when you need that pause.
There are many more rules for when you should or should not use a comma, but for now, let’s just focus on those three as the most important fundamentals.
To understand the semicolon, you must understand not only the comma but also the period. If the comma creates a pause, the period represents a full stop. You use periods to indicate to the audience that that thought has concluded and are now transitioning to a new thought. The semicolon is somewhere between a full stop and a pause. Typically, there are two primary instances when you should use a semicolon:
1) If you have two complete sentences that you want to link together, BUT you do not want to use a conjunction because you want to show a connection between those two thoughts, the semicolon links them together. Friendship is the most valuable gift in life; it can heal almost any wound and makes each day a little brighter. Notice how the semicolon joins those two complete thoughts. A period or a conjunction would slow down the reader too much and lose the connection between the sentiments. A comma is too weak of a pause, so the semicolon is the perfect happy median between the two.
2) If you have a complex series, you need to set off the main elements with semicolons to make it clear where each one begins and ends. For instance, in this blog entry we are covering commas, which create a pause in written language; periods, which create a full stop; and semicolons, which fall somewhere in between a full stop and a pause. If we only used commas to separate those three main elements, that phrase would be nearly unreadable because it would be too cluttered. The semicolon shows perfectly where the major breaks should occur.
Finally, we have the full colon. Typically, the colon is used to introduce a series/list or further clarify some thought. If you noticed earlier, before my series of two points about semicolons, I used a colon to introduce that a list was to follow. We can do that in a sentence, too. For instance, a good sentence contains several key elements: a clear subject, a strong verb, and proper punctuation for starters.
You can also use the colon to further clarify. This falls under two primary subcategories: 1) introducing a concluding explanation and 2) introducing an appositive (if you’re unsure of what an appositive is, that could be the next Feedback Friday segment). For the concluding explanation, consider the following example. A homemade meal nourishes the soul: it involves time, preparation, and attention to detail. While you could argue that a semicolon would serve here just as well, in this particular example, the colon more definitively shows that the second sentence more clearly explains the first. For introducing an appositive, think about this example. Homemade meals taste better for one simple reason: love. In both of these examples, the colon is used to set off an element that provides more explanation or clarification for what preceded it.
So there’s your explanation of the primary differences between a comma, a semicolon, and a colon. Hope to see you back here next week for our next Friday Feedback.