Tag Archives: commas

Semicolons are recess periods

The semicolon is one of the most confusing punctuation marks, and many people are really unsure what to do with it. Some use it in place of a colon; others use it where a comma would be correct.

In fact, a semicolon is really a period that’s wearing a comma costume. It’s a full stop, but it’s pretending not to be. In French it’s a “point-virgule”: a period-comma. I think I would prefer to call them recess periods; they’re really periods, but they’re like a short recess between classes, rather than the full stop at the end of the day – you have a class on one side and a class on the other, or, in this case, an independent clause on one side and an independent clause on the other.

Semicolons are not like colons, and they’re not like commas either. Commas are multipurpose things, but one of the things you can’t do is use them to join two syntactically independent clauses; that’s called a comma splice. A colon is like a pair of eyes, looking expectantly. What is on one side of a colon depends on what is on the other side in some way – syntactically and/or thematically.

A semicolon, on the other hand, is like a tightrope walker – you can see the head on top and the one leg carefully balancing (the other is directly behind and not visible). For the tightrope walker to stay balanced, what is on either side must have equal weight: they must be either syntactically independent clauses or complex list items (by complex list items I mean things in a list that have internal punctuation: We went to see some movies: I, Claudius; Dawg, the Bounty Hunter; and Unforgiven).

To know whether a clause is syntactically independent, look for a subject and conjugated verb; you need one of each (unless it’s an imperative) on either side of the recess period.

Bad: He likes going to the races; usually on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races; he usually goes on Sunday.

Also look for conjunctions, which make it not syntactically independent.

Bad: He likes going to the races; which he does on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races, which he does on Sunday.

Unless you’re using the semicolons to separate complex list items, the rule is that it would still be grammatically correct if you replaced the semicolon with a period – because, really, it is a period, and when you whip off the comma mask, it will reveal itself. Like in a Mozart opera.

Dear Kitty, Hi, Kitty, Love, Kitty

In the matter of salutations and signatures in correspondence, many people are confused about comma placement. Here is how the standard rules go, and why.

In Dear Kitty, you are addressing a person (the technical term for this is vocative) and are declaring her to be dear; it is an adjective, and you don’t put a comma between an andjective and what it modifies. Saying Dear Kitty is like saying Sweet kitty as in Sweet kitty, won’t you come lie on my lap?

In Hi, Kitty, the Kitty is again in the vocative, but Hi does not modify it; Hi is an expression of saluation, a performative. Salutations are self-contained in much the same way as imperatives, and the vocative is effectively an interjection; if you want Kitty to listen, you say “Listen, Kitty,” rather than “Listen Kitty,” and likewise it’s Hi, Kitty, how’s your cat rather than Hi Kitty, how’s your cat (unless her name is Hi Kitty). It’s true that many people leave the comma out there; that’s not considered standard, however, as there is a structural disjunction.

In a closing signature, the name is yours, so you are not addressing anyone with it; the signature function is a particular performative, sort of like Amen. It closes the text and expresses that it is from you. (We don’t do it in direct personal speech because it would be silly – it’s obvious that you’re saying what you’re saying.) The Love is short for “with love,” which means “I am sending this to you with love,” so it’s also a performative – but a different one. If you leave out the comma, you are making a direct connection between Love and Kitty, making it read like an imperative: Love Kitty! (With Sincerely it would be less snicker-worthy but still mistaken to leave off the comma: Sincerely Kitty would mean “I sincerely am Kitty” rather than, as you want, “I say this sincerely, and sign it Kitty.”)


Dear Kitty,
Hi, Kitty,
Love, Kitty.

Fun with find & replace: trailing punctuation

A colleague found herself faced with a formatting problem: the book she was working on required trailing punctuation (commas, periods) to match the formatting of the word they trailed (bold, italic). This can be hard to spot, and tedious to do by hand. She was working in MS Word. Was there a way to do it in find-and-replace using wild cards?

The answer is yes, and it involves one of my favourite F&R subterfuges, the dummy character.

It’s a bit of a nuisance that Word can specify formatting only over a whole search term, not part of one. But dummy characters help get around that:

1. Replace all bold whole words with the same word plus a special character used nowhere else in the document (a per-thousand sign or a pilcrow or a double dagger or whatever, but it has to be used nowhere else).

The find field will look like this: (<*>)
It will have “Use Wildcards” and “Font: Bold” specified for it.
The < and > mean start and end of word; the * means any number of characters; the ( and ) define it as a single term.

The replace field will be like this if your special character is ξ:  \1ξ
(Replace ξ with whatever character you use.)
The \1 refers to the first (and in this case only) defined term from the Find field.

2. Search all instances of that character followed by a comma or a period (or whatever trailing punctuation you want to change – but only one at a time) and change them to bold.

This is just changing ξ. (or whatever special character and whatever trailing punctuation) to bold, no wild cards needed (make sure to remove the format specification on the Find field). In fact, don’t use wild cards; . is a special character in wild cards (you’d need to make it \.).

3. Delete all instances of the special character.

In other words, find ξ (or whatever your character is) and replace it with nothing – completely empty cell, not even a space. Make sure to remove all formatting specifications.

4. Do the same but with italic rather than bold formatting.

The bolding and italicization should be done as separate steps. Reduces possible confusions, and also handles bold italics neatly.

This can also be used for preceding punctuation, e.g., opening quotes. The variation is trivial and is left as an exercise to the reader. :)

Unpacking the Grey Owl

A colleague – Adrienne Montgomerie – was recently reading to her child from a story by Grey Owl when she came across this rather large sentence (From the second-last paragraph of “How the Queen and I spent the Winter” as published in the collection Great Canadian Animal Stories,
Whitaker, 1978):

This creature comported itself as a person, of a kind, and she busied herself at tasks that I could, without loss of dignity, have occupied myself at; she made camp, procured and carried in supplies, could lay plans and carry them out and stood robustly and resolutely on her own hind legs, metaphorically and actually, and had an independence of spirit that measured up well with my own, seeming to look on me as a contemporary, accepting me as an equal and no more.

We certainly don’t write like that so much anymore. I must say that I enjoyed reading that sentence, but some people may wonder whether all those commas are necessary and whether the whole thing is even grammatical.

So let’s have some fun and take it apart. Continue reading

Commas before quotes

Does quoted material always need a comma before it? Not necessarily. When the quoted material is within a narrative frame – even if it’s the only thing in the narrative frame – and we’re being taken to the scene, as it were, a comma is generally used. But when the quoted material is being treated as an instance of an utterance of that phrase, and the verb is the main thing rather than being an entrance point to dialogue (in other words, when the quoted material is truly the complement of the verb rather than an act of locution introduced), a comma is not called for. Some comparisons:

These are the sort of people who say “Sure thing” and then don’t do anything. [no comma there – it’s not bringing in an actual dialogue situation]

The pepper jar broke. Mary sneezed. John said “Aw, nuts.” The cat fled. [what John said is being treated as another action like Mary’s sneeze]

The pepper jar broke. Mary sneezed. John said, “Aw, nuts.” The cat fled. [you’re expecting further dialogue here – at the very least, the instance is framed as one of a dialogue situation]

Don’t shout “No, don’t do it!” at an actor in a play. [don’t use a comma here – this is a general comment, not an entry into a specific situation]

John stood, horrified. He shouted, “No, don’t do it!” at the actor. [this is an entry to a dialogue situation, even if no further speech is said]

John is a fool. Last night at the play he shouted “No, don’t do it!” at an actor. You can’t take him anywhere. [this is not entering a narrative]

John is a fool. Last night at the play, he shouted, “No, don’t do it!” at an actor. I had to grab him and drag him back into his seat. An usher ran over and glared at him uselessly. [this is entering a narrative]

In the end, the General said “Nuts.” [there was something he said at the end, and we’re just establishing what it was]

In the end, the General said, “Nuts.” [it’s taking us there to the instance of utterance]

There was the time Mary came home and found Debbie Travis in her living room. She ran out of the house shrieking “It’s her! It’s her!” and the camera crew had to sprint after her. [this is a more anecdotal, broad-view description]

Mary walked into her living room and saw a large number of people she knew. In the midst of them was Debbie Travis. Mary’s eyes popped. She ran out of the house shrieking, “It’s her! It’s her!” as the camera crew sprinted after her. [involved narrative]

There’s a certain amount of wiggle room and, yes, some variation in opinion on this. It can be a slight but important variation in tone in some cases; in other cases, the wrong punctuation will make it jarring.

Why the second comma?

The Editors’ Association of Canada email list has lately had a discussion on the topic of sentences such as “Victoria, BC is a pretty place” – or should that be “Victoria, BC, is a pretty place”?

It’s quite common not to use the second comma. And in fact in most cases one is not too likely to misunderstand the sentence without it. But does it belong there, strictly speaking? And if so, why? Continue reading

I’d say that if you want to, you can write it this way

A fellow editor was having a contretemps with a colleague who insisted on putting a comma after that in constructions such as I’d say that, if you want to, you can write it this way and You can see that, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. The theory is that these are appositives – parenthetical insertions, effectively – and should be set off on both sides by commas.

The two cases cited are actually not identical. When the phrase is integral, one cannot treat it as parenthetical, and so in particular it’s actually incorrect to put You can see that, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This would imply that one could have You can see that the more you know you don’t know, which one cannot; the the…the is a coordinated pair (and, for the curious, this the is not actually the normal the but is in fact descended from an instrumental case form of the demonstrative pronoun).

As to the sentence I’d say that, if you want to, you can write it this way, one can indeed remove the if you want to and still have a coherent sentence (if, in this case, a jerky one), and so it can be treated as a parenthetical, but one is not required to do so. That introduces a subordinate clause that can stand on its own syntactically (unless it’s subjunctive), and anything that can stand on its own as a sentence can follow the conjunctive that without a comma. Anything – try it. (Sometimes it’s a bit lumpy, of course, but it’s not wrong.) That includes if X, Y as well as similar constructions such as because X, you can Y.

So you have a choice: either that introduces you can write it this way with the parenthetical insertion of if you want to, or it introduces the whole clause if you want to, you can write it this way. In the latter, no comma is used.