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.