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When to Use Semicolon Instead of a Comma: Grammar Guide

Updated on July 30, 2013

When should you use a semicolon and when should you use a comma?

The bottom line: it's up to you. Semicolons and commas are used to link two sentences or independent clauses. An independent clause must contain a subject and a verb. You have the choice of leaving one independent clause alone and ending it with a period, or you may link two independent clauses together with either a comma or semicolon. As long as you follow the simple rules for commas and semicolons, grammatically, either way you will be correct.

Correct Usage of the Semicolon (;)

The semicolon is used when connecting two sentences or independent clauses. Unlike the comma, you do not use coordinating conjunctions, e.g., and, or, but, etc. A semicolon can also be used when connecting two independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs, e.g., however, therefore, thus, otherwise, etc. When beginning the second independent clause after a semicolon, do not use a capital.

  • I love chocolate mint gelato; it's not as healthy as yogurt.
  • I love chocolate mint gelato; however, it's not as healthy as yogurt

  • Yesterday, we went to Walter Haas Park; Georgia was exhausted when we got home.
  • Yesterday, we went to Walter Haas Park; thus, Georgia was exhausted when we got home.

Correct Usage of the Comma with Independent Clauses

When linking two independent clauses with coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, so, nor, yet), place the comma before the conjunction. Remember: do not use the comma if you do not have two independent clauses.

  • I love chocolate mint gelato, but it's not as healthy as yogurt.
  • Yesterday, we went to Walter Haas Park, and Georgia was exhausted when we got home.
  • Yesterday, we went to Walter Haas Park and were exhausted afterward. (There is no comma before the "and" here because "were exhausted afterward" is not a complete sentence.

OOPS- Common Mistakes

  • These sentences contain two independent clauses without coordinating conjunctions; thus, you need to use a semicolon and not a comma.

She was a great dancer, she danced for the Hubbard Street Ballet Company. INCORRECT

She was a great dancer; she danced for the Hubbard Street Ballet Company. CORRECT

  • "Thus" is a conjunctive verb that is connecting two independent clauses. Commas are not used with conjunctive verbs and independent clauses.

She was a great dancer, thus, she danced for the Hubbard Street Ballet Company. INCORRECT

She was a great dancer; thus, she danced for the Hubbard Street Ballet Company. CORRECT

  • In some instances it is best to use semicolons instead of commas. For example, when there are lists that contain more than one word a comma may cause confusion. In the below examples, the first and third sentences are confusing because we are unsure of which items are being listed.

I love dancers: they are graceful, which is evident by their delicate movements, they are hard working, which shows through their strength in their movements, and they are disciplined, which we can see through their precision of steps. INCORRECT

I love dancers: they are graceful, which is evident by their delicate movements; they are hard working, which shows through their strength in their movements; and they are disciplined, which we can see through their precision of steps. CORRECT

He was campaigning in Los Angeles, California, Lincoln, Nebraska, Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. INCORRECT

He was campaigning in Los Angeles, California; Lincoln, Nebraska; Boston, Massachusetts; and Providence, Rhode Island. CORRECT

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        David 2 months ago

        Most sources agree that coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so), only require only a comma in front of them when they connect two independent clauses. Yet, when a conjunction (such as however, therefore, moreover, thus) is used to connect two independent clauses, a semicolon is required. It seems to me that permitting a comma to be used in front of a coordinating conjunction is merely a "modern convention;" and, to me, it defies logic. (Get it?) Following are some (more) examples to support my contention:

        1) "I only go swimming in summer; however, I have thought about going polar diving." Now, if I change just ONE word (and substitute "but" for "however"), I am, in this instance (if I am to follow the "rules" and look like I know what I'm doing), "required" to drop the semicolon altogether and substitute it with a COMMA (even though I am STILL connecting two INDEPENDENT clauses and NOT changing the meaning of the sentence one iota). Example: "I only go swimming in summer, but I have thought about going polar diving."

        2) Here's another example: "I have some reservations about this English punctuation rule; although, I do try to follow the rules." Here again, if I change just ONE word (and change "although" to "yet")...(and IF I wish to follow the "rules")...I am required to drop the semicolon (as well as the comma following), and again connect two, completely INDEPENDENT clauses with a comma! "I have some reservations about this English punctuation rule, yet I do try to follow the rules."

        Notice that I have changed but ONE word. I have not changed the meaning of the sentence(s), at all.

        "I could go on with many more examples; however, I believe I've made my point." Or is it: "I could go on with many more examples, but I believe I've made my point."

        For the sake of consistency, if nothing else, would it not be better to always use the semicolon...and a comma following the connecting word? We use the semicolon when there is NO connecting word. We use the semicolon with SOME connecting words (and those are followed by a comma). Yet, the "rules: say that when we connect two independent clauses with certain OTHER words, we are to use a COMMA to join the two independent clauses. It has been many years since I have diagrammed sentences, but this "comma rule" makes NO sense to me. Is it, as I offered at the outset, just a "modern convention? Or am I missing something here?

      • profile image

        linda 2 years ago

        Thank you so much, Robin, for your advice. I have been losing APA credit because of the comma v semicolon dilemma Such a simple thing and yet it causes so much trouble.

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        annonymous 4 years ago

        Evident is correct.

      • pauldeeds profile image

        Paul Deeds 5 years ago from Berkeley

        I believe you should use evidenced instead of evident in this sentence.

        "I love dancers: they are graceful, which is evident by their delicate movements ..."

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        Mark 5 years ago

        What if you have three independent clauses using commas and semi-colons?

        "In our meeting, we can talk about cats; we can talk wildly about birds, or we can not talk about Pacific fish." Should the semi-colon be replaced by a comma, since, though they are independent clauses, this is actually a list?

      • profile image

        Laura 5 years ago

        Thanks for such an informative and clearly expressed explanation! This is the closest I've ever come to understanding the concept; I may actually retain some of it! (I think that was the first semicolon I ever attempted by choice, rather than by some random slip-of-the-finger typo.)

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        godscyd 5 years ago

        Would a statement before a semi colon be implied in the next statement? Example" The Chairman and Treasurer must be a member of the community and be in good standing; the vice chairperson and Secretary may be a trial member."

        Would "in good standing" be applied to the second half

        of the statement automatically in addition to being able to be a trial member?

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        Marcelo 5 years ago

        @ joe - you should use a dash when giving a definition or additional information about a certain word or phrase in your sentence; e.g The teacher spoke of mammals - animals that feed on milk in their early growth.

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        Michelle 5 years ago

        Where would the comma go in What's To Come Is Better Than What's Been

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        joe 5 years ago

        When do you use the dash in a sentence.

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        Adam 5 years ago

        Would I use a semicolon or a comma if saying:

        I'm pretty sure it's tomato, not potato.

        I'm pretty sure it's tomato; not potato.

        ?

      • baygirl33 profile image

        victoria 5 years ago from Hamilton On.

        Robin.Thanks!

        Bet you didn't know how needy we all are!

        Wonderful hub.I will keep it close!

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        Kristi 5 years ago

        Lisa,

        I would use:

        Arise, shine, for your light has come. [the NIV uses this version as well]

        However, other translations (ASV & NKJV, for example) use Arise, shine; for your light has come.

      • profile image

        Jackie 5 years ago

        do you use a comma or semicolon before yes or correct at the end of a sentence? i.e. And he spoke to you about the injuries that he received that day; correct?

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        Sally 6 years ago

        Thanks Robin, it helps me a lot before my TOEFL exam!

      • profile image

        Claire-ify 6 years ago

        Hi robin I have a huge test on these Puncuation rules and I don't get them at all I'm only 13 but I need help!!

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        Lisa 6 years ago

        Please help. What punctuation would be accurate in the following sentence?

        Arise shine for your light has come.

        I am considering the following, Arise; shine for your light has come.

        Thank you.

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 6 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks, Esme. I greatly appreciate the feedback and look forward to reading more of your Hubs!

      • EsmeSanBona profile image

        EsmeSanBona 6 years ago from Macon

        Robin, this is wonderful information as are your other grammar hubs. Thanks for taking the time to provide this information. As a former English major, I love it when I see grammar lessons. In the age of texting, I think grammar and spelling are becoming a lost arts.

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        Mr. Dumass 6 years ago

        Is this correct usage a a semicolon?

        So, we have something's in common; can we talk?

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        htodd 6 years ago from United States

        Great hub ,Thanks for sharing details

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        Lucas 6 years ago

        Comma or semi-colon?

        My family really wanted to make so many moves, but it had to do so. Because it was necessary for my father´s ``,´´ or ``;´´ we moved almost every year.

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        Hue Noet 6 years ago

        Karen you are the best!!!!!

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        Tootie 6 years ago

        Is it right to use a semicolon in this sentence and are my commas used correctly?

        She concludes that even though in Russia people were not living a good materialistic life, they felt happy and close to each other; whereas, many people in Canada are living a good materialistic life, but they are unhappy and lonely because they lack the blessings of true friendship.

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        Anonymous Coward 6 years ago

        Does a colon always folows a complete sentance or independent clause?

        "The bottom line: it's up to you."

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        Lucy 6 years ago

        I am wondering if the semicolans use below are correct or if commas would be better.

        "She will be deeply missed by her husband and best friend, Steve, her loving sons, Derrick Rossi and Jared Rossi; her parents; and her four sisters."

        Thanks for your help.

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        kldgbb 6 years ago

        How about this in this sentence?

        "This necessitates maintaining situational awareness of all systems and system configurations across the organization, evaluating the security impact of actual and proposed changes, assessing all security controls, collecting, correlating and analyzing security-related information, actionable communication of security status across all levels of the organization, and active management of risk by organizational officials."

        I like the comma, but my colleague prefers the semi colon. Is the semi colon preferable because the "collecting, correlating and analyzing" part in the middle of the list?

      • profile image

        Dennis 6 years ago

        This helped me so much. Thank you!

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        Jeansi 6 years ago

        Where would you use comma or semi colon in this paragraph?

        A career in the bio-medical engineering program would be a perfect fit for the university and me. As a student, I will bring my enthusiasm for sports, my community involvement, my academic achievement and leadership skills to enhance the university. I truly believe that the University of Wisconsin gives me the best opportunity to achieve my goals while enriching the community.

      • fastfreta profile image

        Alfreta Sailor 6 years ago from Southern California

        Robin, what a great English lesson. I've always shied away from using the semicolon, because of being unsure of just how to use it. I can't wait to peruse your other teaching hubs. I'll now have to watch how I word my comments, LOL!

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        velmaster 6 years ago

        thanks your information was useful

      • profile image

        velmaster 6 years ago

        thanks your information was useful

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        Help! 7 years ago

        Would I put a comma after the word "goodbye" in the following sentence?

        When you and I said goodbye, I felt the angels cry.

      • adorababy profile image

        adorababy 7 years ago from Syracuse, NY

        I never really gave a fuss on the difference between these two but after reading your post, I actually have to think over the instances that I have incorrectly used the comma and the semi colon. Thanks.

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        JoeK 7 years ago

        Thanks, Robin! I have found your advice much easier to follow than most of the other grammar sites. Would you mind clarifying something regarding an earlier post? Which of the following sentences is considered to be grammatically correct? This first sentence is the one you had suggested.

        It was the longest journey of my life, nine months.

        It was the longest journey of my life: nine months.

        It was the longest journey of my life - nine months.

        In this situation, I remember being taught to use the colon but I guess there could be more than one correct way of writing it.

        Thanks either way!

      • Frances_30s profile image

        Frances_30s 7 years ago from Texas

        Great hub. I teach grammar and still like to read about it in my spare time!

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        cr 7 years ago

        Hey Robin, just came across your hub for no real reason, but I enjoyed the discussions. I'll be sure to add your site to my bookmarks.

      • mrteacher profile image

        mrteacher 7 years ago from London

        Good clear hub Robin; I'm writing a book on here, so your pages will come in handy! Hope I've used the colon and comma correct...

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 7 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks, Ann!

      • Ann Nonymous profile image

        Ann Nonymous 7 years ago from Virginia

        Hi Robin...So glad I found you on the hub. Have you ever heard of Grammar Girl? She's been on Oprah, has books and such... well you are now my personal grammar girl on HP!!! This is great!

      • rvsrinivasan profile image

        rvsrinivasan 7 years ago

        Knowing things brings immense pleasure. I came to know there is a lot to learn. I am a kid. I have made some attempts to write hubs. May please see.

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        Tom 7 years ago

        What is incorrect with this sentence. "John Doe he wanted to go to the game.

      • Rose Benjamin profile image

        Rose Benjamin 7 years ago

        Robin, where have you been all my internet life?! I hope your excellent teaching catches on.

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        Jonathan  7 years ago

        THANKS--have been trying to figure out the ; and , usage on a resume. I've been using the format you referred to but was never sure it was acceptable.

        BTW--it's "Hubbard Street Dance Chicago" now. It was never "Ballet" since all the rep is modern ballet/modern jazz.

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        Epsilon5 8 years ago from Eastern Pennsylvania

        Excellent article. Very helpful. :)

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        ahana 8 years ago

        Hi Robin, need help with commas for this sentence. I think needs to be used before the conjunction.

        "FIN is best suited for children and adolescents because it does not interfere with the growth process and has the lowest complication rate"

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        Kim 8 years ago

        I work in the funeral home industry and have seen obituaries written in a hundred different ways.

        Would it be correct to say, "He is survived by three daughters, Jane Doe; Janice Doe; Jackie Doe; three sons, John Doe; Jack Doe; James Doe; etc...."

        or

        "He is survived by three daughters, Jane Doe, Janice Doe, and Jackie Doe; three sons, John Doe, Jack Doe and James Doe; etc...."?

        Thanks!

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        Cat 8 years ago

        Hi there. If I'm writing a list such as "Director Jane1 Harris; Pianist Jane2 Harris; Clarinetist Jane3 Harris" would it be correct to use the semicolon or should I use a comma? Thanks...Cat

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        Bell 8 years ago

        It's all so clear now. Thankyou

      • The Real Tomato profile image

        The Real Tomato 8 years ago

        Very relavent topic and one I needed to read. We all get spelling check but not grammar check.

        Thank you for helping us out.

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        Herbie 8 years ago

        My question regards colons vs. semi-colons. I found the following at Robert McKee's site (he's the writing guru, puts on those famous seminars, was featured in the movie "Adaptation"): "Quality story structure demands creativity; It cannot be reduced to simple formulas that impose a rigid number of mandatory story elements...."

        Possibly that should be a colon instead of a semi-colon, but my real question is that I think "it" should not be capitalized. What's the rule about capitalization after a semi-colon?

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        marymarin 9 years ago from Ada, Michigan

        Hi all,

        I am wondering if it is ever allowable to omit commas before and after the word "therefore." For example, in this instance:

        Fewer meals are eaten at home, and therefore there are fewer opportunities to teach children about appropriate portion size and healthy food choices.

        I think that commas should be omitted because the "therefore" is essential in this case. When it is removed, serious damage to the meaning of the sentence results.

        Opinions?

      • profile image

        accounting book keeping 9 years ago

        Useful article, thanks!

      • RFox profile image

        RFox 9 years ago

        I too am glad you wrote this hub! When I went through school I was in an experimental year where they decided not to teach grammar only reading comprehension. Safe to say my vocabulary rocks and my grammar leaves something to be desired. Usually I rely on my trusty computer 'grammar watch' to aid me in tricky situations. However, now that I'm older and in the process of learning a foreign language; truly understanding grammar has become imperative. See I need your help! Great hubs!

      • sminut13 profile image

        sminut13 9 years ago from singapore

        i esp love the area where you have given examples of colons, semi-colons and commas. it's enlightening. from the examples itself, i can more or less, know their difference and guess why it's like that if you understand what i mean. thanks lots.

      • profile image

        Kowgirl 9 years ago

        Where des the commas go in this sentence?

        Now, if all you guys, out there, still want to come in for, a dose of arbitrary thoughts that might or might not tickle your funny bone, you are welcome.

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        Bren216 10 years ago

        First, you said that "thus" is a conjunctive adverb, later you called it a "conjunctive verb." How can it be both?

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Hi Sandy,

        I would not use a semi-colon because nine months is not a complete sentence. A comma would be fine. It was the longest journey of my life, nine months. Thanks for the question!

      • profile image

        Sandy Zahn 10 years ago

        It was the longest journey of my life; nine months.

        Comma or semi-colon?

        Thanks

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks for the comment, John D Lee!

      • John D Lee profile image

        John D Lee 10 years ago

        Ah, those tricky semi colons! Thanks for clarifying.

      • Robin profile image
        Author

        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Hi Marie,

        I would use semicolons instead of commas just to reduce confusion. You could also display in bullet form with each skill having a new bullet. Below is one way it can be done. I don't know what "AP" and "AR" are, you may want to clarify this.

        Duties include: maintaining accounting records using QuickBooks Enterprise Edition 2006; setup and monthly preparation of financial statements; setup and maintenance of annual budget, including sales quotas in Excel and QuickBooks for ongoing variance analysis; bank reconciliations; AP; AR; daily cash management using online banking; sales and use tax reports; data entry; and other administrative duties as required by President and CEO.

        Hope that helps! Good luck with the job search!!

      • profile image

        Marie 10 years ago

        I am working on my resume and in trying to be consistent I am a little list on the semi colon vs comma i am listing job duties for example

        Duties include maintaining accounting records using QuickBooks Enterprise Edition 2006, setup and monthly preparation of financial statements, setup and maintenance of annual budget including sales quotas in Excel and QuickBooks for ongoing variance analysis, bank reconciliations, AP, AR, daily cash management using online banking, sales and use tax reports, data entry and other administrative duties as required by President and CEO.

        Sorry for such a big example but it is actually the smallest in my resume.

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Hi Tom, 

        It depends on your reference.  If you are saying "got" in the place of "received", (e.g., I got $15 for my birthday,) then "got" is fine.  If you mean "in my possession" I would use "have", (e.g., I have $15 in my pocket).  Hope that helps!

      • profile image

        Tom 10 years ago

        Isn't it incorrect to use "I GOT $15". instead of "I have $15" when you are saying what you have in your posession

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks for the catch, Dave! Cheers!

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        Dave Smith 10 years ago

        Really liked the examples, thanks. I noticed a little typo and thought you should know:

        The use of commas instead of semicolons is not advised when it there are multiple commas that may cause confusion. The first and third sentences are confusing because we are unsure of which items are being listed and separated by commas.

        all the best

        Dave

      • Robin profile image
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        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Hi Kerin,

        The sentence sounds a bit long-winded.  I would restate it, "Watching television wasn't an option; she didn't understand it and, therefore, wasn't interested."  There is not a comma before "and" because "therefore, wasn't interested" isn't a complete sentence. However, you need a comma before and after "therefore" because it is used as an interrupter in the sentence.   The sentence would still make sense if you omitted "therefore".  Hope that helps!  Great sentence to dissect!  ;)

      • profile image

        kerin 10 years ago

        Where would you put the comma in the following sentence? 'Watching television wasn't an option as she didn't understand it and therefore wasn't interested.'

      • Robin profile image
        Author

        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        Thanks for reading!

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        wajay_47 10 years ago

        Once again, I'm a bit more enlightened. Thank you for this hub.

      • Robin profile image
        Author

        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        For some reason, I like grammar-even though mine isn't always correct. Maybe it's one of my idiosyncrasies. I guess it's the teacher in me. Thanks for reading them! ;)

      • jimmythejock profile image

        James Paterson 10 years ago from Scotland

        Thanks Robin you will make a writer out of me yet lol.....jimmy

      • Robin profile image
        Author

        Robin Edmondson 10 years ago from San Francisco

        In my opinion, brackets should not be used interchangeably with commas, semicolons or parenthesis. I use brackets in these instances: when there is a parenthesis inside a parenthetical sentence I begin and end with a bracket; when changing the upper or lowercase of a word in a quoted sentence; when adding information to a quoted sentence for clarification; or when indicating a misspelling in a quoted sentence, you use the term"[sic]". Hope this helps. It's probably more than you wanted to know. ;) Robin

      • jimmythejock profile image

        James Paterson 10 years ago from Scotland

        hi Robin a question lol. could i use brackets ( instead of a comma or a colon in some cases).