The comma – don’t abuse its poor powers of arrest

commas,semi-colons,colons,blogging,business writing,English,marketing,business success,writing,copywriting,articles,PR,advertising,emailsDo you abuse the poor, unsuspecting, low-powered comma in your writing? Are you using it in the hope of stopping readers to focus on your next major notion, rather than as a means of separating much less critical thoughts?

I must confess I feel sorry for the poor little comma in today’s online (and offline) writing. There it is, slaving away to try to separate big phrases and even big clauses,
when all it is supposed to do is just, well, help establish a list of a few things.

Here’s what the mighty Wikipedia has to say about it:

The comma is used in many contexts and languages, mainly for separating things. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comma comes directly from the Greek komma (κόμμα), which means something cut off or a short clause. A comma can also be used as a diacritic when combined with other characters.

What the comma mustn’t do

…is to try to replace the perfectly valid and delightfully useful semicolons and colons.

But with would-be writers having savaged the poor old comma, it seems now to have taken on an overwhelming role that it can’t really sustain.

Some examples (most made up by me, but based on many real ones I have seen) …

Consider how you would approach advising readers on this topic, so you would start by…

I know of dozens of examples of this problem, here they are…

I spent £1,000 one year on insomnia issues, the lack of sleep was killing me.

…so I agreed a compromise, I would make them because she asked me


Proper punctuation is not some old-fashioned prudery: it’s a damned useful toolbox

There are many so-called blogging experts who will tell you that silly little issues like punctuation aren’t worth even thinking about.

Normally these business bloggers have an educational deficiency of some sort and although that’s OK in many ways, what it produces for them is articles and posts that don’t make sufficiently efficient use of punctuation.

And a prime example of that is in text where a commas are used instead of a semi-colon or colon. Why? Because semicolons and colons provide opportunities to create greater pauses than the poor little comma can.

Why make do with the poor little comma when you have two much more grunty tools to use in its place?

Let’s take a closer look at the much more punchy powers of arrest you get with semicolons and colons.

First, the semi-colon, according to Wikipedia

The semicolon (;) is a punctuation mark with several uses. The Italian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder established the practice of using the semicolon to separate words of opposed meaning and to allow a rapid change in direction in connecting interdependent statements.[1] The first printed semicolon was the work of Aldus Manutius in 1494.[2] Ben Jonson was the first notable English writer to use the semicolon systematically. The modern uses of the semicolon relate either to the listing of items or to the linking of related clauses.

Without getting pedantic here, we can assume that the colon stops readers in their tracks for quite a bit longer than the comma does. It’s probably wise to ensure both bits of text that the semicolon separates have their own verbs.

Now –  Wikipedia‘s take on the colon …

The colon is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots centered on the same vertical line. A colon is used to explain or start an enumeration. A colon is also used with ratios, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in bibliographies, business letter salutation, hours and minutes, and formal letters.[1]

Once again if we’re not to be too pedantic, this basically means a colon can stop an elephant in full rampaging charge at 10 metres, only just short of the power of the period/full stop. But it’s not to be used lightly.

So how do they work?

Let’s see what we can do using these more powerful powers of arrest, with the examples we saw above along with a little amplification where necessary.

First with semicolons

Consider how you would approach advising readers on this topic; so you would start by…

I know of dozens of examples of this problem; here they are…

I spent £1,000 one year on insomnia issues; the lack of sleep was killing me.

…so I agreed a compromise; I would make them because she asked me

And with colons, which are suitable for separating even bigger phrases and thoughts

Consider how you would approach advising readers on this topic: you would start by…

I know of dozens of examples of this problem: here they are for your consideration…

I spent £1,000 one year on insomnia issues: the lack of sleep was killing me and destroying my ability to work effectively.

…so I agreed a compromise: I would make them because she asked me, but only if she asked nicely

blog,writing,news,blogging,business,Suzan St Maur,,how to write betterAre you still going to fumble around with poor little commas when you really need the fire power of semicolons and colons? Or do you think commas are enough for what you have to write about?

Please share your thoughts here!






  1. Did you know that Photoshop was initially created by a company named Aldus who they named after Aldus Manutius? And that eventually Adobe who had started with PageMaker bought them out?

    In 1985 we created a booth at a trade show for printers and we published an 8-1/2 x 11 20 page book using all of our vendors and using the Mac, laser printer and beta software. We invited someone from each vendor to be on our booth, too. We REALLY had fun 🙂