Independent Clauses – Comma Versus Semi-Colon Use

When asked about semi-colons, people often take one of the following stances:

  1. They are sexy, because rarely-used punctuation is fun.
  2. They are pesky, because I don’t understand when to use them, let alone what they really mean.

I fall into the first category, because I have an odd obsession with semi-colons and em dashes. Those two little guys can add so much drama and whimsy. Are you confused as to when to use a semi-colon? Look no further!

Commas and Conjunctions

A comma is used when joining two independent clauses, a.k.a. two complete sentences (A complete sentence contains both a subject and a verb, such as “She sat.” or “He ran!”), with a conjunction.

“She sat, but he ran!”

Need an easy way to remember what conjunctions are? Think of tiny FANBOYS. (No, not the kind you see at a Taylor Swift concert.)

  • For
  • And
  • Nor
  • But
  • Or
  • Yet
  • So
Semi-Colons and Conjunctive Adverbs

A semi-colon is used when joining two independent clauses, a.k.a. two complete sentences with a conjunctive adverb. While conjunctive adverbs serve a similar purpose as regular conjunctions, they not only get a fancier name, but they also get fancier punctuation. They also tend to be fancier (longer) words. Note how they can also add more drama.

“She sat; therefore he ran!”

Unfortunately, there is no clever way to remember the list of conjunctive adverbs. I think of them as non-FANBOYS that can still connect two independent clauses.

Common Conjunctive Adverbs are: accordingly, additionally, also, besides, comparatively, consequently, conversely, finally, further, furthermore, elsewhere, equally, hence, henceforth, however, in addition, in comparison, in contrast, in other words, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, namely, nevertheless, next, now, on the contrary, otherwise, rather, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, thus

Note: If a conjunctive adverb is used in any other position in a sentence, it is offset by commas.
Nonetheless, some colleges are making efforts to trim budgets and pass along the savings.”
“Secretary Bennett, however, maintains that more federal aid would only encourage universities to count on the government to meet any increases they might impose.”

Commas and Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions join two clauses, thus making one dependent (or “subordinate”) upon the other. When the dependent clause is placed first in a sentence, use a comma between the two clauses. When the independent clause is placed first and the dependent clause second, do not separate the two clauses with a comma.

Because it is raining, we have an umbrella.” (comma necessary)

“We have an umbrella because it is raining.” (no comma necessary)

Common Subordinating Conjunctions are: after, although, as, as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, as though, because, before, even, even if, even though, if, if only, if when, if then, in as much, in order that, just as, lest, now, now since, now that, now when, once, provided, provided that, rather than, since, so that, supposing, than, that, though, til, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, where if, wherever, whether, which, while, who, whoever, why