Monthly Archives: March 2010

Punctuation Pitfalls – The Semicolon

Semicolons don’t show up very often. The truth is, a writer can word sentences in such a way that he never has to use them. However, they add variety and really serve as a short cut.

Chicago Manual of Style says the semicolon is half way between a comma (indicating a pause) and a period (indicating a full stop), but more nearly like a period. I thought that was helpful.

The most common use of a semicolon is in compound sentences, in place of a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or) between the two independent clauses. (See Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2 for a review of compound sentences and independent clauses.) Here are a few examples:

    The disruptive player was kicked out of the game; in his place the coach inserted a little-used freshman.
    The writer plans to go on tour; however, she is waiting to receive confirmation of the schedule.

Semicolons are also used in compound sentences when the independent clause has internal punctuation. (Too many commas confuse the reader). An example:

    The girls agreed to see a movie; but the guys wanted to watch TV, shoot hoops, or take a nap instead.

Handy marks, these semicolons. Don’t be afraid to use them. 😀

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 7

Commas Used with Appositives.

I think we’re coming to the end of comma-use tips. Because I’m trying to explain some of the more technical uses that often snag writers, I don’t think I’ll address their placement in dates and addresses. I’m sure there are other sites that give that basic information.

So today I’ll tackle “appositives.” The easiest way to think of these is as two ways of naming the same person, place or thing. For example:

  • Los Angeles Lakers=NBA champs
  • Rebecca LuElla Miller=freelance writer and editor
  • the Bible=the Word of God

One sentence construction separates these two ways of naming the same thing with a verb:

    The Los Angeles Lakers are the current NBA champs.
    Rebecca LuElla Miller has been a freelance writer and editor since 2002.
    The Bible is the inspired Word of God.

In such instances, there is no appositive and therefor no commas.

But, you might be thinking, you said appositives are two ways of naming the same thing. True. But they must also be side by side, without a verb between. Here are some examples:

    The Los Angeles Lakers, the current NBA champs, have a good chance of repeating this year.

    I’ve hired Rebecca LuElla Miller, a freelance writer and editor since 2002.

    The Bible, God’s inspired Word, is the authority upon which we can rely.

For the record, the second of the two words or phrases, the portion I underlined, is the appositive. It is in “apposition” to the one it renames.

In most instances, the appositive is adding extra material much the same as non-restrictive phrases, and therefore requires commas (or a single comma if the appositive is at the end of a sentence). However, in some cases (the exception you were probably expecting 😉 ) the appositive is closely related to what it renames and therefore necessary to the understanding of the sentence. In those instances no comma is needed.

Here are a few examples:

    My dog Baylea was sick last night. (Owner has more than one dog, so Baylea, though it is an appositive, is necessary to understand the meaning of the sentence).
    Her book Kisses of an Enemy will be published next year. (Writer has more than one book, so the title, though it is an appositive, is necessary to understand the meaning.)

If you have any particular grammar areas you’d like to see me tackle next, leave a comment. Moderation is on so you won’t see it, but I’ll get it in my inbox.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 6

Commas Used in Elliptical Constructions.

Commas indicate a slight pause. In an elliptical construction—a sentence in which a word has been left out—commas usually fill in the gap. Usually! There is the dreaded exception—sometimes the meaning is clear without the comma, no pause occurs naturally in reading the sentence, and therefore, no comma is needed.

Examples are always helpful. Here’s a sentence with elliptical construction:

    I moved here from Colorado; Jeff, from Florida; and Sally, from Alaska.

The sentence actually has three clauses:

  • I moved here from Colorado
  • Jeff moved here from Florida
  • Sally moved here from Alaska

In the last two, however, words are missing. The comma has been inserted to show where those understood words belong.

Here’s another example:


    In professional basketball teams play eight-two games; in football, sixteen; in baseball, one hundred sixty-two.

Sometimes the meaning of a sentence is so clear, the commas aren’t needed.

    One writer is good at characterization, another at plots, and a third at setting.

I’m inclined to think that the presence of a pause should be your guide. You might feel like you’re “just guessing,” but your decision will be based on the purpose of the comma—it’s there to tell the reader to take a breath or at least to take a break, a slight one.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5

Commas Used in Complex Sentences.

In Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2 I discussed commas used in compound sentences. Since a compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses, I took the time to define and provide examples of independent clauses.

I bring this up because today I want to tackle the use of commas in complex sentences, or ones with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

By way of refresher, a clause is a group of words with a subject (who dun it) and a verb (what action did they do). What separates an independent clause from a dependent clause is whether or not that particular group of words can stand alone as a sentence; that is, is the thought complete?

Here are some dependent clauses:

    after the game started
    before her mother served dinner
    if the speaker was right
    when the judge finally made his ruling
    because the story held my interest to the end

In each case, the group of words contains a subject and verb, but because of the conjunction that introduces the clause, the thought is incomplete. (Bonus coverage: these conjunctions are called subordinate conjunctions because they subordinate a dependent clause to the independent clause).

I love these complex sentences because the comma use is so straightforward. If the dependent clause comes first, use a comma between the two clauses. However, when the independent clause comes first, you don’t need a comma between the two.

Notice the first sentence in the above paragraph. The dependent clause because the comma use is so straightforward came after the independent clause, so no comma was necessary. However, in the next two sentences, the dependent clauses came first, so each needed a comma at the end of the dependent clause.

Here are some additional examples of dependent clauses beginning sentences, and therefore requiring commas.

    Because his brother finished first, he won the prize.
    Since the rain stopped, we put away our umbrellas.
    If the pitcher strikes out the next batter, she will set a personal record for the season.

Here are examples of dependent clauses following independent clauses and therefore not requiring commas.

    The defendant thanked his attorney after the hearing ended.
    The road won’t open until Monday because the workers haven’t finished clearing away the debris.
    The media attention increased when the two best skiers each moved into the semifinals.

As I said, this comma use is straightforward (read, easy). No exceptions and no judgment calls. That’s my kind of punctuation rule. 😀

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