Punctuation with Attribution

By Mark Nichol

An attribution is a phrase that describes who said or wrote something. It is stated parenthetically before, in the midst of, or after a statement or question (it is basically an introductory phrase that can be located elsewhere than at the head of a sentence), but writers often erroneously omit a comma required to help frame the attribution. The following sentences illustrate variations in this type of error, and discussion and revision following each one explains and demonstrates correct treatment.

1. In the future, Smith says she looks forward to having her team work more with data analytics.

Without a comma after says to correspond to the one following future, this sentence appears to awkwardly state that it is known in the present that in the future Smith will say that she looks forward to having her team work with more data analytics. But “Smith says” is an attribution, so the phrase should be bracketed by a pair of commas: “In the future, Smith says, she looks forward to having her team work more with data analytics.”

2. As rooftop solar panels become more common, company executives say they need new products that will distinguish the business from its many competitors.

The error in this sentence is not as obvious as the one in the previous example. However, the implication here is that the company executives are making a statement at the same time as rooftop solar panels become more common. This may be technically accurate, but it’s not the point of the sentence. “Company executives say” interrupts the sentence to identify the source of the statement: “As rooftop solar panels become more common, company executives say, they need new products that will distinguish the business from its many competitors.”

3. There are about 365.25 days in a year according to NASA.

Because of the lack of internal punctuation in this sentence, it appears to quantify the number of days in a specific typed of year—one that is according to NASA. An attribution, regardless of whether it precedes, interrupts, or follows a statement, should be set off from that statement. If the attribution appears at the head or tail of the sentence, however, only one comma is necessary to set it off from the main clause: “There are about 365.25 days in a year, according to NASA.”

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3 Responses to “Punctuation with Attribution”

  • Petra

    By setting the agent off in parenthetical commas, you prescribe a remedy for example 2 that changes a tolerable error into an unacceptable one of the dangling modify type, so glaring that I don’t to elaborate.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Absolutely true, and a great example: the comma is necessary
    Old: “There are about 365.25 days in a year according to NASA.”
    New: “There are about 365.25 days in a year, according to NASA.”

    Your title is incorrect and misleading: “Punctuation with Attribution”, should be “Punctuation concerning Attribution”.
    “Punctuation with Attribution”, really means something like “This semicolon needs to be there, according to Ernest Hemingway.” Thus, this kind of punctuation is attributed to Mr. Hemingway.” For another example: “This hyphen ought to be an m-dash, according to Mark Nichol.” “2001: A Space Odyssey”, with the colon attributed to Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
    “After a nuclear war, the survivors will envy the dead,” with attribution to Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev attributed many thing to Chekhov and Kafka, as well as to Marx and Lenin. Khrushchev despised Stalin and believed him to be a mass criminal, just like Hitler.

    By the way, the actual number is closer to 365.24 days in a year, rather than 365.25. This is why we need to skip a leap year now and then (once every 400 years): The year 2000 was NOT a leap year, though it would have been one according to the old Julian calendar.
    D.A.W.

  • Mark Nichol

    Petra:
    Good catch, though the first error is not tolerable to me, and I don’t think the error you pointed out is egregious; confusion isn’t likely in this case. But replacing they with a noun improves the sentence: “As rooftop solar panels become more common, company executives say, businesses need new products that will distinguish the business from its many competitors.”

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