As a court reporting firm owner, my life’s work involves countless words on endless pages. I find great value in well-written communication. Likewise, poor grammar is a pet peeve. Over the years, friends and colleagues have looked to me as a grammar resource, and I appreciate their trust.
Punctuation can be a sticky wicket. A simple misplaced period or comma, for instance, can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Here’s a case in point:
Rachel Ray eats humans and dogs? Really?
Another example – a short story found throughout the Internet:
In our line of work, a subtle pause during a deposition can change how a judge or jury interprets a given statement. Some may say that every second counts; for legal professionals, every pause counts.
With that said, I thought it would be helpful to share some important tidbits about the pauses of the English language: periods, semicolons, and commas. (Of course, these punctuation tools may be used for other purposes; however, here we are limiting the discussion to pauses.)
Periods are used to signify a stop after a complete sentence. The key word here is “complete.” A complete sentence must include a subject and verb and express a complete thought. If a period is used to separate incomplete sentences, then a sentence fragment results, which is incorrect. On the other hand, if a comma is used instead of a period to combine two complete thoughts without a coordinating conjunction, then a run-on sentence is created.
CORRECT: Mary loves John. She is hoping he will propose this weekend.
CORRECT: Mary loves John, and she is hoping he will propose this weekend.
INCORRECT: Mary loves John, she is hoping he will propose this weekend. (Run-on sentence)
INCORRECT: Hoping he will propose this weekend. (Fragment)
Commas are used to separate two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so). Independent clauses are clauses which could stand alone as a complete sentence.
CORRECT: Tom was excited, and he listened closely as his boss made the announcement.
In this example, both “Tom was excited” and “He listened closely as his boss made the announcement” are complete sentences and could stand alone. Because they are joined together with the word “and,” a comma is used to separate the two independent phrases.
INCORRECT: Tom was excited and he listened closely as his boss made the announcement.
- Commas are used to separate multiple adjectives that are describing the same noun.
Josh drove safely through the thick, heavy fog.
Jane gently brushed her long, beautiful, blond hair.
- Commas are used to separate lists of three or more.
Jan ate salad, chicken cordon bleu, and a fruit parfait for lunch.
- Commas are placed after exclamations and other one-word interjections.
No, I won’t do your work for you.
Oops, I didn’t mean for that to happen.
Seriously, hand it over.
- Commas are used to prevent confusion when more than one interpretation is possible. This is likely the hardest and most confusing use of a comma. Note the big difference that comma placement can make in the following sentences.
Let’s eat kids. (Who would do that?)
Let’s eat, kids. (Oh, you mean it is dinnertime.)
I like cooking my children and my dog. (Think: Rachel Ray, above.)
I like cooking, my children, and my dog. (I am a well-rounded person!)
Slow children at play. (Politically incorrect, on many levels.)
Slow, children at play. (A simple warning to drive carefully.)
The Suitable Semicolon
A semicolon is stronger than a comma (longer pause) and weaker than a period (less pause). A semicolon can replace a period when the writer wishes to add variety to the sentence structure or wants to highlight similarities or differences between two complete clauses. The semicolon has basically two uses:
- To separate items on a list when the items themselves include punctuation.
Johnny enjoys hiking; biking; and building endurance, stamina, and better mobility.
Rachel likes blueberries; strawberries; and red, green, and yellow apples.
- To separate two closely related clauses that could otherwise stand on their own.
John has a ferocious dog; it jumps, barks, and bites all the time.
Jane is extremely efficient at her job; she sacrificed a great deal to earn that bonus.
(To use a semicolon in this way, make sure both clauses could stand on their own.)
I hope that the fun and serious examples above help clarify the correct use of the comma, semicolon, and period. Perhaps these tips will come in handy the next time you are working on a project that involves written communication.
If you see a grammar faux pas in your daily routine, feel free to share it with me. The “written oops” helps to validate my passion for good grammar.
Yours for accurate and effective communication,
Lori T. Donovan, RMR, CRR
Certified Court Reporter