Grammar Tips: Punctuation: Commas, Oxford Commas, and Semi-colons

17 Jun

Commas and semi-colons can easily become two of the most confusing punctuation marks to use properly. In fact, the comma was recently ranked as the #1 most difficult punctuation mark to learn to use properly (followed closely by the apostrophe, which we discussed a few weeks ago!). What makes commas and semi-colons so confusing and so difficult to use? Well, they can be used in multiple ways and they have different rules. Today, we will discuss the comma, the oxford comma, and the semi-colon in order to better understand their proper uses!

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The Standard Comma 

On the most basic level, a comma is a punctuation mark (,) indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. This is likely why many students learn to insert a comma wherever they would naturally pause in a sentence, although that is not always true. As the above chart illustrates, there are many uses for commas, including:

  • separating items in a list (I have an applea peach, and a pear.)
  • separating coordinate adjectives (Sarah bought three plain, white t-shirts.) 
  • separating coordinating conjunctions (Alan was a good student, but he failed the quiz.)
  • separating dependent clauses (Although they did not have directionsthe students went in search of the library.)
  • separating conditional clauses (If I go to the moviesI will have to get popcorn.)
  • separating appositives (Ms. Smith, the English teacher, hated run-on sentences.)
  • setting off an introductory phrase (After the stormThe Johnsons had to replace their barn.)
  • setting off an interjection (The vote was close, as was expected, but the motion failed.)
  • appearing after a direct address (Sean, could you please close the windows?)
  • appearing after a title (Dear Mr. Smith,)
  • separating the day and month from the year (June 17th, 2014)
  • separating numbers larger than 999 (1,000)
  • separating cities from states or countries (CincinnatiOHor ParisFrance)
  • appearing after abbreviations (She tried to improve her health as best she could (i.e., going to the gym).)
  • appearing before quotations (According to Newbold (2014), “…commas…have more rules…than any other punctuation mark”.)

The Oxford Comma 

We already know from our above list of the uses of the standard comma that a comma is used to separate items in a series. An Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is the comma that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items. For example:

In the summer, Catherine enjoyed swimming, bikingand exploring the woods with her friends. 

In this case, the comma after ‘biking’ but before ‘and’ is optional. In the above example, it is not necessarily needed because it does not change the context of the sentence. That said, many style guides actually recommend always using an Oxford comma because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will. For example:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and my mother. 

In the above example, where we have included the Oxford comma, each item in the list receives the same treatment. The book is dedicated to the writer’s roommates, to the actress Nicole Kidman, and to the writer’s mother. If we remove the Oxford comma, however, the sentence changes. Let’s take a look:

This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman and my mother. 

In removing the Oxford comma from our example sentence, we are causing some confusion in our sentence. Is the writer dedicating the book to their roommates, Nicole Kidman, and their mother, as our previous sentence indicated, or are they dedicating the book only to their roommates (who happen to be Nicole Kidman and their mother)? Without the Oxford comma, our sentence is ambiguous and needs further clarification. This is where our rule comes back into play: including the Oxford comma will never hurt the sentence, but eliminating it can cause confusion for our readers.

The Semi-Colon 

Semi-colons help to connect closely related ideas when a punctuation mark stronger than a comma is needed. As our chart above explains, there are two main uses for semi-colons, including:

  • joining two related and complete sentences (I went to the store; I was out of milk and eggs.
  • separating list items when the listed items include commas (My favorite cities are Savannah, GA; Denver, CO; and Boston, MA.)

Want to know more? 

Check out some of our past posts for more information on commas and other types of punctuation!

As always, if you have any questions or need help with your writing, visit the Writing Center today!

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6 Responses to “Grammar Tips: Punctuation: Commas, Oxford Commas, and Semi-colons”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Word Crimes! | The Christ College Writing Center - August 27, 2014

    […] Punctuation, Commas, and the Oxford Comma  […]

  2. 38 Common Spelling and Grammar Errors Explained | The Christ College Writing Center - October 24, 2014

    […] Grammar Tips: Punctuation: Commas, Oxford Commas, & Semi-colons  […]

  3. Grammar Tips And Tricks | Clark (and Kent?) - April 27, 2015

    […] On the most basic level, a comma is a punctuation mark (,) indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. This is likely why many students learn to insert a comma wherever they would naturally pause in a sentence, although that is not always true. As the above chart illustrates, there are many uses for commas, including: Via christcollegewritingcenter.wordpress.com […]

  4. Grammar Tips: The Apostrophe In Depth | The Christ College Writing Center - June 8, 2015

    […] seem to give people a lot of trouble. While we already know that the comma is the #1 most difficult punctuation mark to master, the apostrophe is a close second! Whether it is […]

  5. National Punctuation Day | The Christ College Writing Center - September 24, 2015

    […] Commas (,) are complicated! A comma is used to indicate a division in a sentence, as in setting off a word, phrase, or clause, to separate items in a list, to mark off thousands in numerals, and to separate types or levels of information. There are at least 15 different ways to use commas; please click the link for a more in-depth review of these uses. […]

  6. Grammar Tips: Winter Review! | The Christ College Writing Center - December 9, 2015

    […] Commas, Oxford Commas, & Semicolons […]

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