What is the Difference Between a Semicolon and a Comma?

This is a great scene from the movie, Wit. Though the scene stands on its own and inspires a re-reading of Donne’s Death Be Not Proud, Holy Sonnet X, you can learn more about the rest of the movie here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wit_(film)

Before our discussion in class, please view this clip as a way to inspire a re-reading of Death Be Not Proud. Then, sometime before class, decide upon the most artful poetic tool that Donne employs to create his metaphysical insight about life, death, and eternal life. Leave a “comment” in Standard English to start our class discussion online.

With Semicolon: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173363

Without Semicolon: http://www.academia.edu/2335183/John_Donne_Holy_Sonnets_X_Death_be_not_proud_1633


About Bill Sullivan

I am an English teacher working with great students at Suffield Academy. I also teach seniors in various project-based learning environments. Some of the #PBL topics included global issues, such as Pandemics, Climate Change, and Water; more recently I have asked students to research and identify topics important to our school community and their generation. We curate these topics with a #StudentCenteredPBL. For the past eleven years, I also created a driving question for a class to research a local history mystery and present their findings in a community program partnering with our local historical society. These topics encompass researching the lives of enslaved individuals who were contributors to the foundation of our community.
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11 Responses to What is the Difference Between a Semicolon and a Comma?

  1. 16crs16crs says:

    In this short clip, it is clear that the use of punctuation in poetry is rather important. It is not something that can be changed, or replaced without creating an entirely different meaning. The professor in this clip explains that a comma is the only thing separating life, and everlasting life. That only a mere comma sets the boundaries of life and death. When adding in a semi-colon, it creates a large pause, and insinuates that there is supposed to be a dramatic break in the text, which changes the rhythm of the poem. Also, it is clear that the final punctuation mark should be a period, not an exclamation mark. The period shows the desperate nature of the sentence, as well as a subtle, expected ending; whereas an exclamation mark makes the sentence sound almost positive, or exciting. When speaking about death, or poems more generally, one must be careful with not only their word choices, but their punctuation as well.

  2. hnewman9 says:

    Grammatically the difference between a comma and a semicolon is that a semicolon indicates a pause between two main clauses that is more pronounced than that of a comma. In Donne’s metaphysical style of poetry this is a very important distinction. The professor tells the student that the edition she is using is incorrect because Donne did not mean for the distinction between death dying and being no more. He did not want the pronounced pause of the semicolon, rather he intended for a simple breath. The poem is not meant to be read allowed and acted out, but instead Donne intends for this to be an individual experience between oneself and their mind.

  3. okdotes says:

    In this short clip, the professor tries to explain how important punctuation really is in Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. The difference between a comma and a semicolon is that a semicolon links two independent clauses without a connecting word while a comma connects two independent clauses with the help of a conjunction. A comma is also a much briefer pause than a semi colon and by misusing one, the feel of a story or poem can be changed. By having the wrong edition, the student was not able to read the poem properly. Having a semicolon instead of a comma causes a long pause opposed to a short breath. This caused the student to misinterpret the poem because Donne intended for life and life everlasting to only be separated by a comma.

  4. kjness says:

    Punctuation plays an important role in conveying the meaning of a sentence. For example, the use of an exclamation point rather than a period makes for a more dramatic ending. In Donne’s poem Death Be Not Proud, it is important that the right punctuation is used to give the reader the message the poet intended. In this short clip the professor said, “Efforts must be total for the results to be meaningful”. This shows that Donne worked tirelessly to perfect every word and punctuation in his poem to obtain the desired effect. By changing the original comma to a semicolon, the intended message is lost on the reader. Instead of showing a soft passing from life to afterlife as intended by Donne, the semicolon gives a harsh break between the statements in the last line. This clip from the movie Wit shows the great importance of punctuation selection based on how it can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

  5. 16ht says:

    This video explores the power of punctuation, hence, the power of a comma and how it separates “life from eternal life”. It is a rather profound message that relates to Vivian’s illness as she claims in the beginning that she is currently on the line between life and death. Within John Donne’s ‘Death Be Not Proud, Holy Sonnet X’, a comma reveals a pause, thus, a breath that could imply a complex depiction of Death itself. Donne’s poem would never be viewed with perfection and precision without its punctuation that entails a metaphysical insight of “simple human truth” and nature. With a comma or a semi-colon, a poem’s meaning can completely change and yet pursue a greater discovery of poetic language.

  6. 16ohs says:

    John Donne’s metaphysical style of poetry is very precise, and leaves no room for misinterpretation. In the video, as Vivian looks back on professor’s sage insight while she herself is on the brink of life and death, it is revealed what changing punctuation can do to a poem. A comma is but a pause, connecting two parts of a sentence, while a semicolon brings two separate clauses together with a more pronounced pause. Donne’s original intention with the poem was to strip Death of its frightening cloak, and show it merely as a short pause between life and eternal life. However, when Vivian reads the incorrect version with a semicolon, Death seems more of an enemy to vanquish rather than a passing to not be feared. Therefore, punctuation within John Donne’s poetry remains to be the most artful tool he uses.

  7. JGeng says:

    The punctuation of the last line of the sonnet is in fact not “merely an insignificant detail”. The professor shows the student how vital punctuation is to understand John Donne’s message in his “Death to be not proud”. By having the wrong edition, the student cannot correctly comprehend Donne’s idea on death- a comma, not a semi-colon, separates life and death. The professor explains that by using a semicolon, death becomes “something to act out on a stage”, which changes the message and meaning of Donne’s poem completely. Thus showing how important punctuation is.

  8. madrakula says:

    John Donne’s poetry uses many artistic tools to create his metaphysical insight about life, death, and eternal life. The most important poetic device Donne uses in his poetry would be the use of punctuation. A period represents a definite and occasionally abrupt ending of a person’s life, whereas a comma represents a pause or a roadblock in life. A semicolon represents an ending, such as death, but with a continuation. Punctuation is the most artful tool that Donne utilizes in his poetry.

  9. 16msd says:

    This video explicates how the use of punctuation effects the readers experience of the poem. The professor, seen in flashback, shows the audience how the final sentence of a poem by John Dunn becomes significantly more dramatic when a semicolon and capital letter D is added. The professor of the protagonist says that adding the semicolon changes the meaning of the sentence by adding a significant separation between life and death. A comma was intentionally placed in the poem to act as a soft breath, a subtle shift from life to death.

  10. Niklas Hess says:

    A semicolon is by definition a punctuation mark (;) indicating a pause, typically between two main clauses, that is more pronounced than that indicated by a comma. Donne uses this small difference to indicate the blurred line between life, death and eternal life. The clip shows that the usage of punctuation is not only about correct grammar, but often also implies a certain meaning. The edition that the student used is incorrect, because it ignores the most artful tool used by Donne: punctuation.

  11. da-AL says:

    stumbled onto this – wonderful! would you be so kind as to guest blog post for my site? if you’re so inclined, here’s a link to general guidelines: https://wp.me/p6OZAy-1eQ

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