3 Punctuation Problems

By Mark Nichol

In each of the three sentences below, the internal punctuation employed does not support the sentence construction. Discussion below each example explains how to provide sufficient scaffolding.

1. “Enjoy the break in the weather, a major storm is set to hit Northern California tonight.”
This sentence contains a comma splice, it includes two independent clauses separated by a comma, which is insufficient to carry the load. (That sentence also suffers from a comma splice.) When a sentence is constructed like the example or the first sentence in this annotation — when it could be divided into two smaller sentences — do so, or at least replace the intervening comma with the sturdier semicolon: “Enjoy the break in the weather; a major storm is set to hit Northern California tonight.” (Alternatively, a colon or an em dash is sometimes appropriate.)

2. “But one thing is certain, belief in a fair press is gone.”
If the first clause in a sentence is a setup for what follows, follow the first clause with a colon; as with the comma splice, the comma is too weak to sustain the transition: “But one thing is certain: Belief in a fair press is gone.”

3. “He had two handguns, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm, and a Bushmaster rifle.
The context may be clear in this specific sentence, but often, this construction is ambiguous. What appears to be two elements, “two handguns” and “a Bushmaster rifle,” interrupted by an interjection that precisely describes the first element, could also be interpreted as five objects described in three elements: “two handguns,” “a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm,” and “a Bushmaster rifle.” To eliminate the ambiguity, use parentheses or a pair of em dashes (whichever seems appropriate in the particular case) to set the annotation off from the rest of the sentence: “He had two handguns — a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm — and a Bushmaster rifle.”

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


8 Responses to “3 Punctuation Problems”

  • Ron

    Does a colon require capitalizing the first word after a colon?

    “But one thing is certain: Belief in a fair press is gone.”

    Thanks

  • Curtis

    Ron,

    I quote here from “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner: “Note: If what comes after the colon is a complete sentence, start it with a capital letter. *My advice was this: Bring only one next time.*

    Great book, by the way; useful, and lots of fun to read.

  • Mark Nichol

    Ron and Curtis:

    Note, however, that this is a minority opinion: Many style guides recommend capitalizing after a colon only when the expansion of the point that precedes the colon consists of more than one sentence. But others recognize that this is an odd distinction to make, and I concur. (But note O’Connor’s specification about the complete sentence.)

  • Stickler Editing

    Thanks for this post Mark. It certainly seems as though the good old comma splice is one of the most common errors out there! I wonder if any official study has ever been done on this? And if so, it would be interesting to see if anyone knows why, of all things, this error is so often committed.

  • Franka

    Hi Mark,

    In point 2, it should be “weak”, not “week”. Thanks for the great writing tips though; I find them really useful. I hope I correctly used the semicolon there!

  • Paul Hodgson

    Slightly off topic but shouldn’t the “what” in the following topic read “that” given it’s part of a restrictive clause?

    “This sentence contains a comma splice, it includes two independent clauses separated by a comma, which is insufficient to carry the load.”

    Please note that this is an honest question rather than a criticism.

  • Precise Edit

    Regarding number 3
    To improve the clarity of series, I generally recommend placing the most complex items at the end. This strategy would improve number 3, as well.

    In example 3, the complex item is “two handguns, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm.” With this item at the end, the meaning is less ambiguous.

    Thus, instead of this,
    “He had two handguns, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm, and a Bushmaster rifle”
    I recommend this,
    “He had a Busmaster rifle and two handguns, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm.”

    My revision (in my opinion) also helps the sentence flow more smoothly by removing the break in the sentence.

  • Mark Nichol

    Paul:

    I think comma can be treated either restrictively or nonrestrictively; both of these versions are correct:

    “This sentence contains a comma splice; it includes two independent clauses separated by a comma, which is insufficient to carry the load.”

    “This sentence contains a comma splice; it includes two independent clauses separated by a comma that is insufficient to carry the load.”

Leave a comment: