3 More Cases of Unnecessary Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

In each sentence below, the presence of one punctuation mark—or, in the case of the first example, a team of two complementary marks—introduces a flaw in the syntactical structure of the statement. Discussion and revision of the problematic sentences follow each example.

1. He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.

Because the phrase “Justice Antonin Scalia” is essential to this sentence—the statement would not be grammatically valid if it were omitted—it cannot be treated as a parenthetical. Here, conservative is simply a description of the person named.

But also, because conservative and justice can combine to describe the person, the latter word joins the former one as a generic descriptor and should no longer be treated as a job title: “He would replace conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (This rule applies to any similar shift in function, as in “former president George W. Bush” as compared to “President George W. Bush.”)

2. In the book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, the authors assert that a company sustains itself by setting audacious goals that require the commitment of its personnel to work outside their comfort zone.

Unless the book has been previously referred to, this sentence treats the title as if it refers to the one existing book. Again, without the parenthetical information, the statement is flawed because, in this case, it does not identify the book in question: “In the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, the authors assert that a company sustains itself by setting audacious goals that require the commitment of its personnel to work outside their comfort zone.”

3. These factors pertain to such drivers as: the enterprise’s capabilities; competitor capabilities, behaviors and actions; and customer preferences and bargaining power.

The colon interrupts the syntactical flow of this sentence: “These factors pertain to such drivers as the enterprise’s capabilities; competitor capabilities, behaviors and actions; and customer preferences and bargaining power.” (It would be correct if the sentence began “These factors pertain to such drivers as the following.” In this case, the colon, placed after following, would properly punctuate a complete statement that sets up what follows the colon.)

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3 Responses to “3 More Cases of Unnecessary Punctuation”

  • Mike

    I thought semicolons separate items in a series containing internal punctuation. Wouldn’t commas work in the above example?

  • Mike

    Why semicolons and not commas between items in a series?

  • Mark Nichol

    Mike:
    The second list item in the last example includes a list within a list: “competitor capabilities, behaviors and actions.” (I copied this sentence from a publication that doesn’t use serial commas and neglected to insert one.)

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