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The Craft of Writing IV: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons

October 9, 2010

The Craft of Writing IV: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons
(or Not Just For Smilies Anymore)

This particular post was inspired by my reading of a self-published book recently that—though the author stated they’d used proofreaders and a line editor—was riddled with comma and punctuation errors that distracted me entirely from the content of the book. If an editor is used, such common errors are simply unacceptable, but I also feel every write should know how to use punctuation in their most basic forms (and even some of their more complicated ones as well).

In this post, I am going to teach you about commas, semicolons, and colons. Once you fully understand their strict uses, you can play around with artistic license, as they can be used beautifully to alter pacing in a book. My rule of thumb is: know the rules well before you begin to break them, and this is true for all aspects of writing.

Just a warning for you, this will be a pretty long post, so grab a mug of tea, sit down, and pay attention.

Commas

The comma is the most used, and most misused, form of punctuation in the English language. Maybe because the comma is such a versatile punctuation mark, there is a tendency to assume it can be used anywhere. In general, there are only four instances where a comma is appropriate. Let’s look briefly at each of them.

1. Commas for lists
This is probably the least misused. Pretty much everyone knows that when you have a list, you separate the individual members with a comma. Such a list, for those who may not be aware, looks like this:

Mary went to the store and bought eggs, milk, and bread.

Notice the comma before the word ‘and’ in this sentence. This is known as the Oxford comma, and no end of controversy has been stirred up regarding its inclusion or its removal in a sentence. Some style manuals say it is perfectly correct to omit the comma before the word ‘and’ in a list, while others insist it be included. I am on the side of the latter.

Personally, I believe it adds additional clarity to a list. Imagine this sentence without the Oxford comma:

Mary went to the store and bought eggs, milk, macaroni and cheese.

Did Mary buy macaroni and cheese the dish or did she buy the separate ingredients of macaroni AND cheese? It’s not just grocery lists this sort of confusion can occur in, but it is one of the most simplistic ways of showing that confusion. Especially if one or more of the items in a list contains an ‘and’, an Oxford comma provides both separation and the allowance for grouped objects.

Mary visited Sears, Macy’s, and Marks and Spencer.

It is clear in the above sentence that Mary visited three different stores.

I will always insist the Oxford comma be used in writing, as well as continue to ensure that our in-house style guide for our editors reflects that it is a requirement in our publications. I use it in my professional life as well as my more casual writing (such as this blog), and so I highly, highly stress its usage because I believe it is necessary. Some guides, though, don’t, and so I do say it is an optional comma.

Regardless of which you choose, just be consistent.

2. Commas around direct speech
This one gets misused quite a fair bit, and I don’t know why because the rules are very simple. When introducing direct speech, place a comma before the opening quotes. Example:

Bill said, “Are you going to the show tonight?”

Secondly, when following dialog with more narrative, replace the final period of the final dialog with a comma followed by the closing quotes. Example:

“No, I think I’ll stay in tonight,” Jimmy replied.

The exception to the second rule is if the sentence ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, those should always be retained instead of a comma. However, this does not mean you capitalize the next word. Especially if it is a dialog tag. Example:

“That’s the biggest sandwich I’ve ever seen!” she cried.

Thirdly, when narrative or dialog tags interrupt the flow of speech mid-sentence, both rules still apply. Example:

“All this talk of food,” Sarah said, “is making me hungry.”

Notice I said ‘mid-sentence’. If the dialog ends at a sentence break, the second comma is replaced with a period, and the next dialog begins as a new sentence. Example:

“Don’t go in there,” Mary whispered. “It will eat you!”

And yet, even with such simple rules, the rate of error is phenomenal – in both amateur and professional writing. I just don’t know why. It truly baffles me as these comma rules are very set in stone, and so errors regarding them—especially in professional writing—is just inexcusable.

3. Bracketing commas
Bracketing commas are used to surround parts of a sentence that provide additional information, but which can be safely removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Example:

Jeremy walked through the forest, with its rich scent of pine and wet leaves, on his way to Gareth’s house.

‘With its rich scent of pine and wet leaves’ is not necessary to the structure of the sentence. It provides additional information, but the sentence still reads correctly if the phrase is omitted. You will always bracket such phrases with two commas.

The difficulty in applying this rule comes when determining what is necessary. Compare these two sentences:

Writers who self-publish can be very successful.

and

Writers, who self-publish, can be very successful.

In this case, the phrase ‘who self-publish’ cannot be set off by commas because its removal changes the meaning of the sentence. Yes, it is true that ‘Writers can be very successful,’ but by including the ‘who self-publish’ set off with commas, the implication is that all writers self-publish (which, of course, is not true). So always be sure that what you’re setting off by commas truly can be removed safely without altering the meaning of your sentence.

4. Commas separating clauses and interjections
This is, by far, the place where most comma errors happen. I would dare to say more often than the other three combined. Interjections are easier, so I’ll start with them.

When you begin a sentence with words like yes, no, gosh, blimey, damn, etc., they are always followed by a comma. Period. End of statement. Example:

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Jason laughed.

That ‘Oh’ is an interjection and must be followed by a comma. There are no exceptions. The same is true of introductory adverbs. Example:

Fortunately, the store was still open.

Words like however, meanwhile, furthermore, moreover, etc., when introducing a sentence, are always followed by a comma. These words can also be used in the middle of a sentence much in the same way, but when that happens, they must be bracketed by commas. Example:

He said, however, he was tired.

Which brings us, ultimately, to the worst abuse of the comma: separating clauses. A clause, for those of you who don’t remember 7th grade English, is any grouping of words that contains both a subject and a verb. These can be independent clauses, which can stand on their own as a full sentence, or dependent clauses, which require an independent clause to be attached.

For example, in the previous sentence I just wrote, the words ‘they can be independent clauses’ is an independent clause. It has a subject (they) and a verb (can be) and can stand alone as a complete sentence: They can be independent clauses.

Conversely, the words ‘which can stand on their own as a full sentence’ is a dependent clause. It also has a subject (which) and a verb (can stand), but, as is, cannot be a sentence on its own. It is dependent on the first part of the sentence to make any sense.

The rules regarding the connection of clauses are easily misunderstood. I cannot hope to cover every circumstance in the course of one entry, but I do want to mention some general guidelines for the two scenarios of joining an independent clause to a dependent clause and joining two independent clauses.

When joining an independent clause to a dependent clause, the question that must be asked is whether the dependent clause is defining or non-defining. A defining clause is used to specify a particular subset of the thing it is attached to. Example:

Diamonds that sparkle are highly prized by collectors.

The defining clause ‘the sparkle’ is used to specify a particular type of diamond, and to separate it from diamonds that do not sparkle, such as those used for industrial applications. The rule here is that a defining clause is not set off by commas. It is a seamless part of the sentence. This goes back to the rule about bracketing commas. By removing this clause, you change the meaning of the sentence, therefore, it cannot be set off with commas.

A non-defining clause, on the other hand, does not limit the scope of the group it is modifying. Example:

Cats, which are the most commonly owned pet in America, like tuna fish.

In this case, the dependent clause ‘which are the most commonly owned pet in America’ does not limit which cats this sentence is referring to. Since it is additional information that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence, it is set off by commas. Yes, it is treated identically as a bracketed statement. 🙂

There are two ways to join two independent clauses, with a conjunction and without a conjunction. Conjunctions, for those of us who need to refresher, are words like and, but, or, so, and yet. When two independent clauses are joined with a conjunction, a comma comes before the conjunction. Always. Example:

I bought a soda, and she bought iced tea.

The two parts of the sentence are independent clauses because each can stand on its own as a complete sentence. ‘I bought a soda.’ ‘She bought iced tea.’ When the word ‘and’ connects them, the comma is set before the ‘and’. This is not an optional rule.

Be certain, though, that the two parts of your sentence are independent clauses. In the sentence:

She lit a cigarette and took a puff.

There is no comma before the ‘and’ because ‘took a puff’ is not a complete independent clause. The second half of the sentence shares the same subject as the first half. This is what is known as a compound predicate and does not employ a comma. This includes when you restate the subject of a sentence. Example:

Sean walked into the room, and he sat down in a chair.

Just because the subject is the same doesn’t mean you can omit that comma. They are independent clauses joined by a conjunction, and you must use a comma.

However, it is not always necessary to use a conjunction when joining independent clauses. But, when you do, the correct punctuation is not a comma. It is a semicolon. Using a comma to join two independent clauses without a conjunction is called a comma splice and is a no-no. I’ll discuss this more in the next section.

(A little side note here. The word ‘too’, I feel, has been neglected in all this, but I didn’t really have a place to stick him as he’s one of those anomalies. It has become a recent trend that, when writing a sentence that ends with the word ‘too’, to not precede the word ‘too’ with a comma. This, to my mind and education, is incorrect. It drives me crazy seeing book after book released in the past five or so years with sentences like this:

I like him too!

It’s bare and odd and just plain wrong. When ending a sentence—or even interrupting a sentence—with the word ‘too’, use commas!

I like him, too!

or

I, too, like him!

Thank you.)

Semicolons

As mentions above, the primary task of the semicolon is to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. Example:

I like the blue car; Mary likes the green car.

Notice, again, that both sides of the semicolon are independent clauses and can exist as separate, whole sentences. The key to using the semicolon to join independent clauses is that the two sentences should relate to each other.

Wrong: Jack is a rodeo clown; Kelly likes English muffins.

Right: Jack is a rodeo clown; Kelly is a bull rider.

Kelly liking English muffins has nothing to do with Jack’s vocation, and thus, the use of a semicolon here is incorrect. These should be two separate sentences, preferably nowhere near one another. If, on the other hand, you were to say:

Jack leapt into the barrel to lure the bull; Kelly ate an English muffin.

It’s still an odd combination of actions that would be explained by the story surrounding it, but by combining these two with a semicolon, the implication is that they are happening at the same time. In which case, the usage is appropriate.

There is only one other reason to really use a semicolon, and it brings us back to lists. When the elements of a list are either complex phrases or themselves contain commas, it is permissible to use semicolons to separate the list members for clarity’s sake. Example:

The napkins were available in red, blue, and green; blue, green, and purple; or blue, purple, and orange.

In this case, we’re describing three sets of napkins that each contain three colors. If we’d tried to separate them with commas, it would have been a logistical mess that the reader would have had to suss out, thus pulling them from the narrative. Our jobs as writers is to immerse our readers, not make them puzzle out our meaning of such a simple thing as a list of complex items.

Colons

Colons, just like semicolons, have very limited and specific uses. The most common is to introduce a list. Example:

There were four boys in the room: Justin, Zack, Greg, and John.

The caveat with this is that the colon should never follow a verb. So, it would be incorrect to write the previous sentence as:

The four boys in the room were: Justin, Zack, Greg, and John.

However, there is a second, slightly more obscure, use of the colon. In certain situations, a colon can be used in place of a semicolon to join two independent clauses. The indicator that this would be appropriate is when the first clause serves as an introduction to the second clause. Example:

I have only one rule while you’re here: don’t jump on the bed.

These two sentences could not be joined with a semicolon and make any sense. But, by using the colon, it is clear that ‘don’t jump on the bed’ is the rule that is being referenced. Don’t get carried away with this, though. It’s not a circumstance you’re likely to find yourself in often, but I did want to mention it as one of the colon rules.

*~*~*~*~*

Proper punctuation is important, and you shouldn’t expect an editor to clean it up for you once you submit your manuscript to a publisher. Sending an ill-edited manuscript to a publisher just tips the scales a little more in the direction of a rejection, as editing is still an area a publisher will have to funnel money. An editor’s time isn’t free, after all. It’s simply clean and professional to offer up the best work you’re able. Don’t half ass it.

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