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Grammar Repair Shop: Comma or semicolon: which one to use?

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Problem: Several readers recently asked us about the use of semicolons versus commas in a complex sentence.

Lesson: The semicolon denotes a break or pause in the sentence that's greater than that of a comma but less than that of a period. Often, how great a break you need is a subjective decision. It also avoids confusion in comma-heavy sentences.

Use a semicolon:

• When you want a stronger break than a comma, including in a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. Example: More than 200 citizens spoke in favor of the proposed amendment; but by the evening's end, no commis-sioner had stepped forward to support it.

• Before a second independent clause that offers an example. Example: He has excellent people skills; for example, I once watched him convert an irate customer into one of our biggest fans within minutes.

• When two independent clauses are too closely related to stand as separate sentences, but you're not joining them with a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor). Example: The first applicant has experience with Web design; the second applicant has no related experience.

• To separate items in a complex series or clauses that also include commas. Example: The politician spoke of motherhood and apple pie; law and order; and truth, justice and the American way.

Peeved by a common error? Puzzled by perplexing grammar rules? Send us an e-mail at with the subject "Grammar." Or call us at (703) 905-4850.

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