COMMA OR SEMICOLON? THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.

I am often asked about semicolons and how to use them correctly. Sometimes the writer wants to know if semicolons and commas can be used interchangeably. The answer is no. I think the two example sentences posted here will help clarify that answer:

In an article about an abandoned mausoleum in Bessemer, Alabama, a Birmingham News reporter created this statement:

The others buried there were: Peter Smith, Geneva Ann Jones, a 6-month-old girl who died from a heart condition in 1993; Vivian Lawrence, 49; Robert Samuel Vaughn, 74: Emily Parsons, 93; Annie Rae Stevens, 56.

NOTE: The names in the above example have been changed. 

Whoops: When people are listed in a series, their names should be separated by commas. If additional information is given about some of the people, that information should be separated from the name with a comma. In that case, each person/information combo should be set off from the next person or person/info combo by a semicolon. This should be done consistently throughout the sentence.

 

In the example above, PETER SMITH is separated from GENEVA ANN JONES by a comma. The punctuation should be a semicolon to be consistent with the rest of the sentence.  The word AND should be added after "93;" to indicate that ANNIE RAE STEVENS is the last person in the series.  Also notice below that it is not necessary to use a colon after WERE in this sentence. It should read this way:

The others buried there were Peter Smith; Geneva Ann Jones, a six-month-old girl who died from a heart condition in 1993; Vivian Lawrence, 49; Robert Samuel Vaughn, 74; Emily Parsons, 93; and Annie Rae Stevens, 56.

When several items are in a series but none of them contain additional information that should be set off by commas, the items can be separated by just a comma. Notice below that there is no good reason for the semicolon after the word INVOLVED in this sentence from another article in The Birmingham News:

The notice says that anyone who wants to report an allegation should do so in writing to the court with as much information as possible, including the person or persons involved; the date on which the alleged violation occurred and specific details of the incident.

For business writing prose (as opposed to journalism style), I would add a comma before AND after OCCURRED, to indicate the end of the series. The sentence should read this way:

The notice says that anyone who wants to report an allegation should do so in writing to the court with as much information as possible, including the person or persons involved, the date on which the alleged violation occurred, and specific details of the incident.


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2 Responses to “COMMA OR SEMICOLON? THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.”

  1. Mae says:

    Hello,

    If one adds "a comma before AND after OCCURRED, to indicate the end of the series," wouldn't it read, "…the date on which the alleged violation, occurred, and specific details of the incident"?

    After decades, I still struggle with affect versus effect, and I have never grasped the nuances of using the word "that."

    Respectfully,

    Mae

  2. admin says:

    I am not sure I understand your comment on this one. I am suggesting the placement of a comma before the AND that comes after OCCURRED so that the series has a clear final item.

    If you go to the “Home” page for this blog, you will find a “Search” box on the right side. There are a number of posts that deal with AFFECT and EFFECT, so type either word in the “Search” box, and it should bring up those posts. The quick and easy answer is that AFFECT is almost always a verb and EFFECT is almost always a noun. However, there are rarer versions for which that answer does not apply. If you still have a question after checking the other blog posts, please get back in touch with an example or two.

    I believe there are also some blog posts about using THAT appropriately, but if you have a specific question about using THAT, please send me some examples, and I will do a post with them.

    Thank you for getting in touch.

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