Where to use commas and semicolons can be challenging. Here are two situations that cause considerable head scratching.

Let’s first remember that punctuation marks are intended to guide readers so that they correctly understand your sentence, and so they read it easily, without stumbling. You have flexibility; nothing in the history of punctuation says there is one way to punctuate in a given situation, other than inserting a period at the end of a sentence.

A comma before “because”

Most of the time, a comma is appropriate before because, given that the information in the element starting with because is not essential to the main thought. You could remove that clause without changing the meaning of the sentence, so it is considered nonessential.

Here are examples:

We hold the conference in May, because no one is on vacation.

Most people ignore their desk phones, because they are squeezed for time.

I really hope to finish the project by Friday, because several people will be out next week.

It often doesn’t even occur to people to insert a comma before because, given that the sentence seems perfectly clear without it, and it might be. Traditionally, we have put a comma there to remove any risk of misreading.

Here are instances where you would not use a comma before because. Inserting it would affect the meaning:

People don’t ignore their desk phones because they are pressed for time; they simply aren’t sitting at their desks very often.

The game was not postponed because of rain; it was rescheduled because we didn’t have enough players.

I left the meeting because I was sick, not because I was annoyed.

Punctuating “however” in midsentence

People frequently put commas on both sides of however when it appears in midsentence, but that’s appropriate only in a rare situation. A semicolon is almost always necessary either before or after however, usually before it.

Please get it to me by Thursday; however, Friday morning will be all right.

We don’t have formal approval; however, indications are that we will hear tomorrow.

(If you don’t like the semicolon, you could write, We don’t have approval, but indications are that we will hear soon.)

Semicolons after however

Depending on what the preceding sentence says, a semicolon might be appropriate after however. Notice this sequence:

That’s a great topic for a presentation. The deadline passed for this year, however; please submit it next year.

To help you determine where the semicolon goes, read the sentence aloud, listen to your voice, and notice where the stronger pause is. That’s where the semicolon belongs. We have different degrees of pausing in English, and the semicolon is a stronger mark of separation.

If you could benefit from more writing tips like these, be sure to register for this writing workshop December 5th to fine-tune your writing skills.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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