Independent Clauses – Comma Versus Semicolon Use

When asked about semicolons, 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 group because I feel those two little guys can add drama and whimsy! Are you confused as to when to use a semi-colon? Look no further!

Commas and Conjunctions

Use a comma when joining two independent clauses (a.k.a. two complete sentence) 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
Semicolons and Conjunctive Adverbs

Use a semicolon 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 get fancier punctuation. They also tend to be fancier (longer) words and can add 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.

“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, 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