Commas, semicolons, or colons? How to make sense without sounding like Faulkner


Compound sentences are necessary and often used parts of an essay. It would seem strange for an essay to be made up entirely of simple sentences. Conversely, if an essay were a series of run-on sentences, you would most likely confuse your reader. Grammar tools like commas, semicolons, and colons are great ways of breaking up information while maintaining sentence clarity. It can be difficult to know when to use each one, especially since semicolons are particularly scary for essay writers. We have already covered comma use in earlier posts, but to reiterate, use a comma to:

1. Join two independent clauses
2. To set off elements that are not part of the main clause
3. To list three or more things in a sentence

When you want to change up your style, or play with punctuation, you can opt to use a semicolon. Use a semicolon when you want to:

1. Link two independent clauses without any connecting words like ‘and’ or ‘but’
I am eating a sandwich; I plan on finishing it.
2. Link two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb (therefore, otherwise, nevertheless, thus)
It was a sunny day; therefore, we went to the park.
3. To join elements in a series when the individual items are already separated with a comma
The previous stops on our road trip were Sacramento, California; Elko, Nevada; Houston, Texas, Tucson, Arizona.

When you want to use a colon, you can do so if:

1. You want to join two independent clauses while emphasizing the second one
2. When making a list

It can be a bit daunting to have to juggle commas, semicolons, and colons. Remember, these tools are style markers, as well as ways to avoid common sentence errors like comma spices and run-ons. You should feel free to experiment with each of the tools above!


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