Looking Closer at the Semi-colon Used in Lists

During the writers’ meeting on Tuesday, we discussed the use of semi-colons in a list following a colon. The published historian in the group, an academic professor who knows a great deal about grammar, punctuation and writing in general, brought it up.

In professional academic papers, the rule is that a semi-colon, not the comma, must separate a list of items when preceded by a colon.

For example: The settlers of the area came from many countries: Germany; Switzerland; Poland and Spain.

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Shadows in the Stone

However, I have not encountered semi-colons used in this manner, so when I came home, I started to dig. It was difficult finding rules online, so I referred to my trusty handbook The Bare Essentials by Sarah Norton and Brian Green.

It recommended the use of semi-colons in complicated lists. The sentence they used as an example was: A few items are necessary: matches to start a fire; an axe or hatchet to cut wood; cooking utensils and eating implements; and, of course, the food itself.

Although this list followed a colon, there was no statement to say the colon was the reason the semi-colons were used.

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This. Can’t. Be. Happening.

Has anyone witnessed the extravagant use of periods lately? It’s as though they are a penny a piece.

I first noticed the dropping of periods like sheep poo in my daughter’s writing. I told her periods – dots – weren’t meant to be used that way. They belong at the end of sentences and on top of lower case I and J. You can also use them to pause . . . to think . . . and then you can use three at once!

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Editing a Manuscript

I used to offer a course called How to Get Published. One of the topics I discussed was editing a manuscript before submitting it to an editor. Her are the basic points I’d go over.

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Because There is No Need for a Comma

Diane Lynn Tibert
The past has always intrigued me and has kept my feet grounded in the present.

I’m a little old fashioned, holding fast to what I learnt years ago from parents old enough to be my grandparents. When it comes to the basics of life, I won’t budge. Meat and potatoes are still a good supper, wearing a hat – regardless of how dorky looking – is still wise to keep in the heat and commas never go before because.

Commas before because, you say? What’s that all about? No one puts commas before because.

Well, actually a small group of individuals do. I’m not sure where this trend began, but it’s not old school and it’s not common in Nova Scotia. Perhaps it was brought in from the west or by our neighbours to the south.

The first time I noticed a comma before because was in my daughter’s homework assignment in October of 2010. It stuck out like a sore thumb. I told her that the punctuation was incorrect and we changed it. However, she told me her English teacher had told her to put it there.

I politely told her the teacher was wrong; we don’t do that in Nova Scotia – not in all of Canada from what I’ve experienced.

Not a month later, I found the editor of my manuscript had done the same thing: put a comma before because. Now that really got me curious. Had I been making this punctuation mistake all my life?

I jumped on the Internet and googled the comma and because. I found several sites, some supported the comma, some tossed it and others said it didn’t matter.

One site brought the truth to the forefront:

Commas do not go in front of because because the simple act of adding that word makes what follows a sub-ordinate clause which isn’t separated from the front of the sentence with a comma.

The Chicago Manual of Style didn’t give a good reason to include the comma. If it is just to clarify, then perhaps the sentence should be rewritten.

For example, “He didn’t run because he was afraid.” clearly states he didn’t run because he was afraid to run. Because is used because the writer is telling the reader why he didn’t run.

I wouldn’t write, “He didn’t run, because he was afraid.” if I wanted to say he didn’t run, but not because he was afraid to, but for another reason. If so, the sentence would be rewritten into two sentences to be correct: “He didn’t run. He was afraid.”

The whole idea of using because is to explain the first half of the sentence.

Another website supporting the comma used yet another poor example. Adding a comma does not reduce the confusion created by this writer because the sentence begs to be misunderstood.

The sentence reads: “I knew that President Nixon would resign that morning, because my sister-in-law worked in the White House and she called me with the news.”

A comment on this exact sentence – which seems to have made its rounds on the Internet – posted on another site notes the missing comma before the and: “I knew that President Nixon would resign that morning because my sister-in-law worked in the White House, (add comma here) and she called me with the news.”

I wouldn’t have written the sentence either way, so the commas utilized wouldn’t come in to play. Instead, I would have written: “I knew President Nixon would resign that morning because my sister-in-law, who worked in the White House, called me with the news.”

There. No confusing on the part of the reader.
I think some people are trying to support the use of commas before because by writing poor sentences. Using poor examples to prove a point is . . . pointless. It’s like smashing your vehicle into a power pole and saying, “Officer, I knew it was crazy to go out in this snow storm, and, yes, I did hear the warnings on the radio for drivers to stay off the roads, but I have all-season tires and . . . well, I really needed new floor mats for the car.”

Personally, I can’t ever recall seeing a comma before because in any books, magazine articles or newspaper stories. It would stand out like whip cream on a sandwich. The next time you’re reading published material, look for the comma. I doubt you’ll find one.

A few websites suggest the comma before because is optional, so to be on the safe side, always use it. Personally, I don’t believe editors, who are already pressed for space, will add unnecessary characters, meaning they (or you) will have to remove them.

That’s my opinion, and I’ll need a darn good reason to change it. Adding commas to poorly constructed sentences is not one of them.