3 Cases of Unnecessary Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

In each of the sentences below, superfluous punctuation interrupts the flow of the sentence. Discussion and revision of each example indicates the correct treatment of the statements.

1. Smith said she regrets using the term, low-lifes, to characterize Jones’s supporters.

Setting low-lifes off from the sentence implies that it is the only term in existence and, because it is equivalent to “the term,” is nonessential. (Presumably, because “the term” provides context, the sentence could stand with low-lifes omitted.) However, lowlifes is essential—Smith is explicitly mentioning the term she regrets using (“the term” cannot stand in for low-lifes; it merely describes what type of thing low-lifes is)—so no punctuation should frame the specific term: “Smith said she regrets using the term low-lifes to characterize Jones’s supporters.”

2. Consider the effect of: significant demographic changes arising from aging populations and concentrations of people in resource-stressed regions, intensifying fiscal pressures on the viability of affected regions, political and social instability in emerging economies, scarcity of natural resources, and regulatory changes.

When a list in a sentence is syntactically integrated within that sentence, do not set the list off from a lead-in phrase with a colon: “Consider the effect of significant demographic changes arising from aging populations and concentrations of people in resource-stressed regions, intensifying fiscal pressures on the viability of affected regions, political and social instability in emerging economies, scarcity of natural resources, and regulatory changes.” (A colon is appropriate only if the lead-in phrase is an independent clause such as “Consider the effect of the following factors.”)

3. This person is authorized to evaluate the state of compliance; quality of compliance risk assessments; design and implementation of risk mitigation plans; and operating effectiveness of those plans, all in coordination with internal audit and other evaluators.

In this case, some punctuation is required, but the form of punctuation used is excessive. Semicolons serve as superpowered commas when one or more items in a list is further subdivided by commas, but this sentence does not have this characteristic. A comma does occur near the end of the sentence, but it separates from the entire sentence a dependent clause pertaining to that sentence, not just the last item in the sentence: “This person is authorized to do evaluate the state of compliance, quality of compliance risk assessments, design and implementation of risk mitigation plans, and operating effectiveness of those plans, all in coordination with internal audit and other evaluators.” (Even if the dependent clause did apply only to the final item, that relationship would likely be obvious, so there would be no need to use stronger punctuation throughout the sentence.)

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