MARCH 2001

Slipping into a comma! Again????

There have been previous articles on the subject, but it seems to me certain items cannot be stressed enough...

Comma (,)

Some people seem to think sprinkling commas every few words is a good rule, but it makes for difficult reading. Here are a few places where commas should be avoided:

. After the conjunctions and, but, and or, unless the comma sets off a phrase which cannot stand alone as a sentence. It is wrong to write "But, she did get it done on time." Use the comma only if there is such a phrase, as in, "But, to be fair, she did get it done on time."

. It is preferable to omit the comma after very short prepositional phrases at the beginning of a sentence, i.e.: not "On Saturday, the office is closed," but "On Saturday the office is closed."

I found that in most "house styles" (e.g., the World Bank Group), the comma is preferred before the last item in a list: "the first, second, and third chapters." (by the way this is known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma.). Leaving it out--"the first, second and third chapters"--is apparently a habit picked up from journalism. While it saves a teensy bit of space and effort, omitting the final comma runs the risk of suggesting the last two items (in the example above, the second and third chapters) are some sort of special pair. A fictitious dedication makes the danger clear: "To my parents, Hillary Clinton and God."

The abbreviation "etc." (never to be used of persons, by the way), even if only a single term comes before it, is always preceded by a comma and except at the end of a sentence, followed by one.

Colon (:)

A colon marks a pause for explanation, expansion, enumeration, or elaboration. Use a colon to introduce a list: thing one, thing two, and thing three. Use it to pause and explain: this sentence makes the point. Use it to give an example: this, for instance. Other uses are in bibliographies. Americans use it after the salutation in a formal letter: "Dear Sir:" (the British use a comma, which Americans restrict to less formal letters). It also introduces a block quotation or a list of bullet points.

Semicolon (;)

Do not use it to replace the comma. The semicolon has only two common uses: to separate the items in a list after a colon (as in "The following books will be covered on the midterm: the Odyssey, through book 12; passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses; and the selections from Chaucer"), and to separate two independent clauses in one sentence (as in "Shakespeare's comedies seem natural; his tragedies seem forced"). The first is obvious enough. For the second use, a simple test is this: if you can use a period (full stop) and a new sentence, you can use a semicolon. In this second use, the semicolon can always be replaced by a period/full stop and a new sentence. In the example, "Shakespeare's comedies seem natural. His tragedies seem forced" is correct, so a semicolon can be used. It is really unsafe to use a semicolon anywhere else.

Punctuation is not decoration.
This is a multifaceted issue and I will admit that it presents some difficult decisions on where we should draw the line. In referring to Guess(?) and Yahoo(!), I think it makes sense to edit out punctuation in corporate names that is either distracting or purely decorative. The constraints that the question mark and the exclamation point place on headline writers make this decision easy. Imagine writing "Earnings Rise at Guess?" in 36-point type and to what confusion this may lead!?

Punctuation and Quotation Marks.
Commas and periods/full stops go inside quotation marks, while semicolons and colons go outside, regardless of the punctuation in the original quotation. Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether the question or exclamation is part of the quotation, or part of the sentence containing the quotation. Some examples:

. See the chapter entitled "The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded." (Periods always go inside.)

. The spokesman called it "shocking," and called immediately for a committee. (Commas always go inside.)

. Have you read "Araby"? (The question mark is part of the outer sentence, not the quoted part, so it goes outside.)

. He asked "How are you?" (The question mark is part of the quoted material, so it goes inside.) If you need a quotation inside a quotation, use 'single quotation marks' inside (also called "inverted commas"): "This" for quotations, 'this' for quotations inside quotations.

Punctuation and Spaces.
The traditional rule, and one especially suited to the single-spaced fonts common in typescripts (as opposed to desktop publishing): put one space after a comma or semicolon; put two spaces after a (sentence-ending) period/full stop, exclamation point, or question mark. Colons have been known to go either way. For spaces after quotation marks, base your choice on the punctuation inside the quotation. Publishers often (but not always) use standard word spacing between sentences and it seems to be gaining ground among typists today, perhaps through the influence of desktop publishing. In any case, it is nothing to lose sleep about.

See you next month!

Jackie Walters