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Punctuation

Things in a series require commas: "he, she, and I." Some teachers allow the second comma to be omitted; not I. It is there to avoid confusion. Use it. (Regrettably, most journalists don't.) Also, in a list of adjectives before a noun, if the word "and" can be inserted but is not, substitute a comma: "the green, ugly, scum-covered lake." Such rules are not as arbitrary and pointless as they seem. Not too long ago, a millionaire left his fortune to his children, "Brad, Joe and Suzie." The lawyer administering the estate gave half the money to Brad, the other half to Joe and Suzie. Joe and Suzie sued claiming that daddy meant to leave an equal third to each. The judge looked at the punctuation and ruled otherwise. We cannot know the intention of the author, especially when he is dead; we only know what the author wrote.

This rule applies just as well in other cases. When Vachel Lindsay chanted

Death is an Elephant,

Torch-eyed and horrible,

the emphasis is on the image of the elephant being torch-eyed and horrible, not death. Frost's famous line "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" is much better without the comma before the "and." With the comma, as some versions have it, "lovely," "dark," and "deep," all define the woods equally. Without the comma, "dark and deep" become a quality of loveliness. Police in Baltimore recently killed a murderer who had taken a boy hostage. As the Post's article put it, "The SWAT team burst into the tiny row house, killed Palczynski as he allegedly stirred and saved the boy." Who saved the boy? According to the Post, without a second comma before the "and," credit has to go to Palczynski and not to the police. So be careful out there.

4. Introductory and final phrases which (whoops! should be "that") might cause confusion or create ambiguity should have commas: "Heading for the green, Dad forgot his golf clubs." Note that without the comma the reader would automatically read "Heading for the green Dad . . ." In the same category, note the difference between a "new hip joint" and a "new, hip joint." Which one would you get from your doctor? . Other uses of the comma include • a direct address when the person's name or title is included: "Love me, daddy, all night long."

  • before a quotation: He said, "My heart is aflame or maybe it's gas."

  • contrasted elements set aside: "I asked for a piece of pie, not pizza pie, when I called."

Note that in all of these, the underlying rule is to avoid ambiguity and confusion. Use the least amount of punctuation needed to keep your meaning clear. If you are not sure if you need a comma, try to imagine how another reader might misunderstand your intent if the commas were left out.

Semicolons

My best advice on semicolons is not to use them or use them with great care. I rarely see them used correctly on college papers. Faulkner could not have written without them. But you are not Faulkner, and Faulkner was not writing for a college class.

If you must know, used correctly the semicolon substitutes for a period to join two closely related ideas. In other words, it should not be used to set off phrases at either end of a sentence that could not otherwise stand alone as independent sentences. So why not use a period? "I am going to the library; Jill is going to the market" is an example of the proper use of a semicolon. "Jill is going to the market; the one near the end of town" is an example of the incorrect use of a semicolon. I most often see semicolons connecting two phrases that are joined in contrast to each other; however, this convention is overused.

Phrases in a series also take semicolons instead of commas if there are commas within the phrases. This helps to separate the things that are being serialized from the extraneous information. For instance, when I am grading papers, I like to sit in a chair, a green one; to use a red pen, preferably a felt-tip; and to torture small animals, either hamsters or mice.

 
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