I do a lot of my writing in a restaurant, so I’m a little bit sympathetic with the restaurant staff in this Bent Pinky comic, but the punch line brings up a little-used but useful technique in good writing, a semicolon. (Shall I drift onto another of my Greek rabbit trails? The punctuation used by Greeks for their question mark looks like a semicolon.)
Maybe people don’t use it because the rules for semicolon usage are vague. Look at it this way: if the rules are vague, you can get away with using it, and no one will complain, because they don’t know either!
Okay, start with commas. Use a comma when the part after the comma depends on what’s before the comma. Look at any sentence in this post for examples. (Yes, we have other uses for commas, but those are for another post.)
Then there’s the period. You know how to use those. Two sentences can be on the same topic, but they stand alone.
Semicolons stand between these two. Technically the material on each side of a semicolon can stand alone (both sides have to have a subject and predicate) but they share a dependency of meaning that ties them closely together. Not enough for a comma, but too dependent for a period. I ran into this on Facebook. (If the owner identifies him-or herself, I’ll be happy to give credit.) It’s a good example of when a semicolon should have been used instead of that comma:
See how a semicolon would have been a better break? That’s not so hard; go thou and do likewise.
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Sometimes I think we could use a punctuation mark between the comma and the semicolon. Something for when you’re using commas to separate items in a list, but you need something a little stronger to separate the whole list from other parts of the sentence. Here’s an example from Gizmag:
In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, plasmons, excitons, and other particles with unexpected and usual properties abound.
You have to read that sentence twice to understand it once! The sentence is perfectly correct grammatically (if you excuse saying “microscopic” when you mean “submicroscopic”), but you can’t tell that “energy” isn’t part of the list that starts with “plasmons” until you get clear to the last word in the sentence! The sentence is correct, but it’s bad writing because it’s not clear.
Well, I’m not going to get anywhere lobbying for new punctuation. What’s the best way to fix this? Recast the sentence. Something like this:
In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, particles with unexpected and unusual properties, such as plasmons, excitons, and others, abound.
We separated the list from the prepositional phrase that begins the sentence. Confusion gone.
The sentence is still rather long. How about this?
In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, particles with unexpected and unusual properties abound. These include plasmons, excitons, and others.
Do you know why that comma is after the word “energy? The rule is that if a sentence starts with a prepositional phrase that has more than five words, separate the phrase from the rest of the sentence with a comma. This one has twenty words. Quite a mouthful.
I hardly ever get comments to this blog, but I posted a link to one of my posts on Google+ the other day, and a friend made a comment that’s not only worth repeating, but it deserves a post! Go follow the link if you want to see the cause for the comment. Here’s his comment:
I think I get it right most of the time…but still have a hard time saying, “Whom do you think you are!?”….the other thing you taught me and I keep forgetting is where the quote marks go in a sentence…not sure I got it right above…
Lorin Walker (a former boss, by the way, and still a friend) says he has trouble saying “whom do you think you are?” Well, he should have trouble saying that, but not for the reason he thinks! We usually put the subject first in English, and the nominative (subject) form of the word is indeed “who.” So we’re used to putting “who” at the beginning of a sentence.
With questions, however, the subject generally doesn’t come first, the object does, and that’s where “whom” comes in. So you generally start a question with “whom.” Except for one thing: the type of verb.
Remember predicate nominatives? They look like direct objects, except they go with linking verbs (mainly some form of “to be” but also other verbs that are equivalent to an equals sign, such as seem and appear.) So in Lorin’s example sentence, the first word goes with (is the predicate nominative of) the last word, “are”! He could say “Who do you thing you are?” with impunity, and be so correct that he’d fool a lot of amateur grammar nazis.
PS: I just now saw a headline, in the Los Angeles Times, no less:
Who does your member of Congress support for president?
Commas are a way of separating sentence content from the rest of the sentence. You may not separate a subject from its verb. You can do other things with a single comma, though. As single comma, usually after the first word in the sentence, can be direct address. That’s when you name the person or thing you are speaking to. (Charlie, get out of bed!) It can also separate something parenthetical, such as a conditional clause. (If you don’t get out of bed now, you’re going to miss the bus!) A single comma can also separate something called an appositive. An appositive is renaming something; it’s equivalent to an equals sign. Here’s an example of that from a recent Bizarro comic. Read the apron. I confess I’m not much into rock and roll, so I just barely know that “Kiss” is the guy’s name. Or something.
What about two commas? The rule in writing is that you don’t separate a subject from its verb with a comma. But you may use two commas. Two commas enclose a parenthetical remark. Since it’s parenthetical, it doesn’t count as part of the sentence. Let’s modify the above:
Kiss, the cook, sports a rather unconventional appearance.
You can take out “the cook” and you still have the main sentence. Do not say, “Kiss, the cook looks rather unconventional,” unless you’re talking to Mr. Kiss about a cook.
A little more about parenthetical remarks: You can make them three ways. I already mentioned commas. Use commas for a minor aside. Use parentheses (which I use rather often in my writing) for remarks that are somewhat off topic. Finally, use M-dashes—very handy to know how to use—to emphasize the importance of the remark. You make a M-dash by holding down the Alt key while you type 0151 on the numeric keypad. Mac users, you’re on your own, and some word processors have their own way of making them. I’ll belabor the point:
Kiss (did you know he can cook?) is pretty good with a barbecue grill. Kiss—he is actually a very good cook—served up some excellent spare ribs.
A final parenthetical remark: You really should kiss the cook.
Lynn Margulis, a famous evolutionary biologist died recently. Here’s a sentence from an article about her.
She was also a major contributor to the Gaia theory, which posits that Earth is a self-regulating complex system, and was once married to astronomer Carl Sagan.
The rule in English is that you never separate a subject from its verb with an odd number of commas. This sentence has a compound predicate, so you have a subject and verb before you get to the first comma. So the sentence is grammatical as it stands.
I’ll get into this more in a future post about the sin of pretentiousness in writing, but you need to have a comma before “which.” “Which” and what comes after it is really an aside, supplying extra information about the Gaia theory.
After the second comma you find a verb but no subject. What’s the subject? Normally you go back to the first suitable noun, in this case, Earth. Carl Sagan was an unusual person, but I doubt the earth was married to him! That second comma to the rescue—it ends the aside and makes you jump clear to the front of the sentence.She and Carl were married. Still a pretty interesting situation, but at least possible.
Editorial comment: That aside is so long, it somewhat separates the second verb from its subject, even with the comma. Maybe they should have changed that last comma to a period and made a second sentence starting with “She.”