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Syntax Training | Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

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July 31, 2014


Marlene Braxton

Hi Lynn!

I'm having trouble with this example. I believe that adding the comma, as you have, makes the sentence more confusing; it looks weird and unnecessary.

Could you have another example, or do others in the industry disagree with you?

'Use a comma to eliminate confusion that would result without a comma:
The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig."'




To be clear, Marlene, we're talking about the first comma, which sets off the direct quotation (…said, "No great thing…"), correct? That's consistent with the stated rule, and I don't find it confusing. From time to time, however, I have wondered if such commas are truly necessary, since the quotation mark itself seems sufficient to signal that quoted material follows.


Okay, I just re-read Marlene's comment, and I think I misunderstood her intent. Sorry, Marlene, but I'm with Lynn on that one. Without the second comma, that sentence could cause injury to susceptible individuals. ;-)

Bob VL

Lynn, serial, comma?

Lynn, Jim: Why not use a colon before the quote?

Jim, does it really cause injury?


Lynn, I think a semicolon is not correct in #2. I would use a comma there. I have not found a source online to justify this, but I believe the reason is the meaning of "then."

In your sentence, you use it in a temporal or ordinal sense: "Do this, then do that." A semicolon is not necessary there. I think a semicolon before "then" is used when "then" is a transitional phrase meaning "as a result." For example, "I bought some earplugs; then I was able to sleep." A comma would also work there, actually, but a semicolon is acceptable.

I avoid semicolons as much as possible. They can make your writing seem stuffy and "precious." A professor of mine in college once said, "Semicolons are for sociology majors" (take that as you will), and Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.”

Many times, when I find I want to use a fussy little semicolon, I rewrite the sentence instead.

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, everyone. Thanks for the comments.

Marlene, I believe you are questioning the comma between "suddenly" and "any more." Its purpose is to prevent the reader from grouping "suddenly any more," which is not the writer's intention.

Here's another example:

I watched John as he read my email and couldn't stop laughing.

A comma after "email" would help the reader recognize that the writer is laughing, not John. (Yes, it would be better to add "I" again to make it very clear.)

Here's another one:

Soon after we left for Europe.

A comma after "after" clarifies the meaning.

Bob, I am not sure I understand your "serial, comma" question. The "serial comma" is one that is used with items in a series.

Bob, you are right about the colon. I didn't focus on the two-sentence aspect of the quote. As soon as I publish this comment, I will change the passage. Thank you!

Christina, your comment came in while I was writing this one. I will respond a little later.

Thanks, all!


Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Hi, Christina. Thanks for questioning the semicolon connecting two sentences with "then."

"The Gregg Reference Manual" is clear about using the semicolon in such instances. It gives these examples:

"Melt the butter over high heat; then add the egg."

"Let's give them another month to see what they can accomplish; then we can pin them down on their progress."

I agree that semicolons are stuffy, and I would use a period to separate the two sentences in the examples above.

Nevertheless, in a test on semicolons and commas, I felt comfortable including the sample sentence using a semicolon and "then" to connect the two sentences.

In my writing, I occasionally break the rule the way you do, when the sentences are short. For example, I might write this:

"Call him, then send an email."

When I teach business writing classes, I typically teach the rules rather than how to break them. That way, class participants won't get in trouble on the job.

"The Chicago Manual of Style" may agree with you, but it doesn't provide examples. It lists a few "transitional adverbs" including "however," "hence," "thus," "indeed," "accordingly," "besides," and "therefore." It adds (with no examples), "And sometimes 'then.' "

These manuals do not weigh in on "then" with a semicolon: "Microsoft Manual of Style," "The Associated Press Stylebook," and "Garner's Modern American Usage."

Thanks for your comment.


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