March 9, 2011

Language tips: Using commas or semicolons after a colon & flier or flyer

Posted in commas or semicolon after a colon, flier/flyer, semicolons and commas at 10:09 am by dlseltzer

I’ve been chuckling to myself for days now. One of the mailing lists I am on is computer-related (I think we have already pretty well established my tendency towards geekiness), and the folks (mostly male) on the list are pretty much power Mac users. I have been reading with interest a thread that was initially called, “Hyphens are Not Dashes” that morphed into, “Grammar and Spelling Talk.” Reading the discussions this group was having about grammar and such and the flaming that ensued has left me breathless with amusement. It’s fun to know that even serious computer geeks can have a thing about language.

Tip 1: Using commas or semicolons after a colon

A reader writes:

When you introduce a list with a colon, should the items in the list be separated with a comma or a semicolon? I’ve seen it both ways, but I don’t know which is right. For example:

This study focuses on the following population groups: elderly women with osteoporosis, elderly men with osteoporosis, midlife women with low levels of calcium, and midlife men with low levels of calcium, midlife women with low bone density, and midlife men with low bone density.

or

This study focuses on the following population groups: elderly women with osteoporosis; elderly men with osteoporosis; midlife women with low levels of calcium; and midlife men with low levels of calcium, midlife women with low bone density; and midlife men with low bone density.

I will answer your question, but then, I feel obligated to mention some of the elements of your sentence that make it weak from both a grantsmanship and scientific point of view.

About the commas and semicolons after a colon, there is a tendency among many writers to use a series of semicolons after a colon in a list or set of bullet points (maybe because it sounds like colons and semicolons go together) but this is wrong. Commas should be used following the colon in a list EXCEPT when there are internal commas in the list. Internal commas make the sentence more complex, and semicolons are needed to help keep the meaning clear. For example:

These challenges include: proliferation of “off-shore” clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical corporations in the West that enroll thousands of subjects in developing countries; tensions between claims for the universal validity of ethical standards for research and respect for local cultures and traditions; and special concerns of race, ethnicity, gender, literacy, poverty, and urban-rural differences.

In the last item of the list regarding ‘special concerns,’ six items are included, and they are separated with commas. As a result, list is separated by semicolons. If not for these multiple items, the list would be separated using commas:

These challenges include: proliferation of “off-shore” clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical corporations in the West that enroll thousands of subjects in developing countries, tensions between claims for the universal validity of ethical standards for research and respect for local cultures and traditions, and special concerns of urban-rural differences.

There. Done. After I finished writing this, I found that I had written about this before (http://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/semicolons-and-commas/). Thankfully, my advice was the same.

Now, lets get back to the original sentence. What’s wrong with this sentence?

This study focuses on the following population groups: elderly women with osteoporosis, elderly men with osteoporosis, midlife women with low levels of calcium, and midlife men with low levels of calcium, midlife women with low bone density, and midlife men with low bone density.

First of all, it is very vague. How do we define elderly? How do we define midlife? A scientific study requires more precision. And it’s not just the ages being studied that are vague: what constitutes a low level of calcium? How low is the study threshold? Low bone density does have a clinical definition according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and, as a result, I don’t have a bone to pick with that. I also understand that the writer presented the groups in such a way to show that each group is being examined separately and that intergroup comparisons will be made; however, this is not the most elegant or economical way of expressing this. And with our new radically shorter page limitations associated with NIH grants, it behooves us to find a way to be precise and efficient in our writing.

There are many ways to rewrite the sentence; one example is the following:

This study focuses on males and females over the age of 65 with osteoporosis, males and females aged 45–65 with low bone density, and those aged 45–65 with calcium levels less than 2.1 mmol/L.

By the way, when indicating an age range, an n dash is used. When the actual n dash is unavailable, it is usually represented by a hyphen with a space on either side’ ” – .”

Take that, my Mac mailing list.

Tip 2: Flier or flyer

A reader writes:

So… how do you spell those 1-page pieces of paper that announce talks and such… “flyer” or “flier”?

I use “flyer”… I must be holding on to some archaic spelling (or misspelling) of the word? I was eventually forced to give up my presumably British version of words like “cancelled,” “labelled,” and “modelled” because of Spellcheck… one “l” still doesn’t look right to me. In this case, it isn’t Spellcheck, but new colleagues who use “flier” all the time (again, just doesn’t look right).

But if you tell me that I’m wrong, I’ll try to slowly make the change…

Sadly, I have bad news for the reader. While both “flier” and “flyer” are correct, in the US, “flier” is preferred, and it is also the preference of most style guides when referring to the paper handout or a pilot.

But I have some good news, too. Happily, ” cancelled” is still okay.

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