Punctuating Complex Sentences

By Mark Nichol

Writers often overpunctuate long, involved sentences by fortifying them with the “supercomma” variety of semicolons in place of commas. Sometimes, a better solution is to break the sentence into shorter, more easily digestible servings, but often, the sentence is navigable when mere commas set off the statement’s elements—and sometimes the syntax requires commas and prohibits semicolons.

(See the first paragraph of this post for a refresher about the two nearly distinct functions of a semicolon, and read this overview of the punctuation mark’s roles.)

Consider the following sentence: “Decisions to decrease inventory levels; maintain a sole‐source or single‐source strategic supplier in any country of the world; and adopt just‐in‐time manufacturing and delivery techniques versus higher inventory levels, multiple suppliers, and other buffers in the process involve trade‐off decisions where quality, time, and cost considerations often win out over business-continuity considerations.”

Here, semicolons are inappropriate because using them isolates the predicate (the part of the sentence beginning with involve) so that it appears to apply only to the third item in the list rather than to all items. (This is because a supercomma semicolon partly incorporates the role of a weak-period semicolon, in that it nearly grammatically sequesters whatever it sets off.) The sentence is sufficiently punctuated as shown here: “Decisions to decrease inventory levels, maintain a sole‐source or single‐source strategic supplier in any country of the world, and adopt just‐in‐time manufacturing and delivery techniques versus higher inventory levels, multiple suppliers, and other buffers in the process involve trade‐off decisions where quality, time, and cost considerations often win out over business-continuity considerations.”

An alternative that somewhat eases the onslaught of comma-laden word groupings is “The following factors involve trade‐off decisions where quality, time, and cost considerations often win out over business-continuity considerations: Decisions to decrease inventory levels, maintain a sole‐source or single‐source strategic supplier in any country of the world, and adopt just‐in‐time manufacturing and delivery techniques versus higher inventory levels, multiple suppliers, and other buffers in the process.” (Even though the last item itself includes several subitems, which seemingly necessitates the use of supercomma semicolons, the presence of a verb in each item—and the fact that it is the final item—effectively distinguishes the items so that commas are sufficient.)

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1 Response to “Punctuating Complex Sentences”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some of this is almost as bad as punctuating your sentences with epithets, like @$%&//?!!

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