Answers to Questions About Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

Here are a few questions from readers about the use of various forms of punctuation, followed by my responses.

1. In the following sentence, how do you separate the statement from the description, “A system of aligned chambers supports anaerobic digestion, a biological process that happens naturally when bacteria breaks down organic matter,” or “A system of aligned chambers supports anaerobic digestion; a biological process that happens naturally when bacteria breaks down organic matter”?

The first sentence is correct: A term’s definition is set off from the term by a comma. (The definition is a form of appositive, an alternative way of naming something, just as in “The boy, a fifth grader at the school, was not injured.”)

A semicolon is appropriate only if what follows it could stand on its own as a complete sentence, as in “A system of aligned chambers supports anaerobic digestion; this is a biological process that happens naturally when bacteria breaks down organic matter.”

2. I avoid the serial comma whenever possible — i.e., in cases where there is no ambiguity — because I prefer not to have comma-heavy sentences.  However, when it is necessary, I bend my rule and use it to remove any ambiguity. Would this be considered inconsistent style (for writing and editing)?

It’s correct, if you generally avoid using serial commas, to omit a serial comma for “a, b and c” constructions but make an exception to insert one for clarity in “a, b, and c and d” constructions. That’s consistent usage — and it’s approved of by The Associated Press Stylebook and other guides that recommend omitting the serial comma in simple in-line lists — as long as you always omit it in the first case and always insert it in the second case. (It would be inconsistent only if you varied between “a, b and c” and “a, b, and c.”) But I think it’s better to simply always, always, use a serial comma, as The Chicago Manual of Style and many other guides recommend.

3. In the sentence “Do you employ a serial comma — the final comma in a sentence such as ‘I bought one apple, two bananas, and three oranges’?” you have your punctuation (question mark) outside the quotes. That’s not intentional, right?

Question marks and exclamation points are located either within quotation marks or outside them based on whether the quoted material is a question or an exclamation or the framing sentence is a question or an exclamation.

In the sentence, “I bought one apple, two bananas, and three oranges” is not a question; it is positioned within a sentence that is a question: “Do you employ a serial comma . . . ?” Therefore, the question mark should follow the close quotation mark.

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10 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Punctuation”

  • Klg

    Regarding your comment about semicolon use:
    “A semicolon is appropriate only if what follows it could stand on its own as a complete sentence… ”

    I wonder why, then, are semicolons used at all, when the writer can just as easily, and I think, more reader-friendly, make two sentences? What does a semicolon accomplish?

  • Matt Gaffney

    Most writers agree fully with the advice in all the above examples and the emphasis given the serial comma in example two is superb, not just because it usually eliminates ambiguity, but also because it complies with the well-known KISS principal.

    Why have two rules (here a serial comma, there no serial comma) when one rule (always a serial comma) simplifies things so elegantly? It’s the sort of rule Blaise Pascal would have endorsed.

  • Rolf Heckemann

    In the first example, “bacteria” is a plural, so it should be followed by “break down organic matter”.

  • Jos

    In the third question, I was of the understanding that in American English, the punctuation ALWAYS goes INSIDE the quotation marks, regardless of the nature of the framing statement’s relationship to the quotation; only in British English can the punctuation ever be placed outside of the quotation marks.

  • Jessica Flory

    Oooh awesome post! Great answers to tricky grammar questions. Especially #3! I always struggle with that.
    As far as the serial commas go, I’ve heard that you should always use them unless the last two items in your list go together somehow. Like in this sentence: for breakfast I ate cereal, peanut butter and jelly. Is that right or is that just crazy talk?

  • Bruce Ramsay

    Right on Rolf Heckenham.

    Bacterium is the singular form. But this may apply to a single cell (unlikely) or to a species of bacterium such as Staphylococcus aureus or E. coli.

    If for example, it were one species (one type) of microbe doing this digestion, then the sentence could have been correctly written: ‘. . . happens naturally when the bacterium breaks down organic matter’.

    It’s amazing how often people get this wrong; even very nice people do it all the time.

    wbr

  • Mark Nichol

    Jessica:

    It ain’t crazy, but your example is flawed: If your menu includes more than two items, at least one of which is itself a compound item, do not insert a comma before the and in the compound item: “For breakfast, I ate cereal, a grapefruit, and peanut butter and jelly.” But your example should be written “For breakfast, I ate cereal and peanut butter and jelly.” If the list is ambiguous (“Who puts peanut butter on their cereal?”), try something like “For breakfast I ate cereal, plus peanut butter and jelly.”

  • Irene King

    Because I worked in a law office for too many years, I always use the serial comma. Lawyers who write precisely – and not all of them do – live and die by it.

  • Teralee

    It always seems wrong to me when people use a comma in this way

    ” Happy birthday, Bob!” or ” That isn’t good for you, son!”

    Is this proper or is it wrong?

  • Teralee

    Actually the above comment, it is the exclamation mark that bothers me as much as the comma

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