April 29, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Semicolons and commas & bullets

Posted in bullets, semicolons and commas at 8:14 am by dlseltzer

Sighting 1:

I sent out a call for papers from the Hastings Center, this week. A reader pointed out that the call ended with a suggested length for papers:

The ideal essay would be 1600 worlds long.

That’s one, long essay!

Sighting 2:

From a resume recently circulated:

Seeking an affective position with opportunity for advancement and professional development.

I don’t have to say anything about this, do I?

Tip 1: Commas and semicolons

A reader writes:

Maybe you could write something about using commas and semicolons when a sentence has a series of nouns and noun phrases.

I was very excited to get this request because, while I have written about commas several times, I I haven’t written about semicolons at all.

Let me just get the comma thing out of the way, first.

When a sentence has  a series of nouns or noun phrases…WAIT. You all know what noun phrases are, right? Just in case someone has forgotten, a noun phrase is the noun and the word(s) that modify it.

Noun:   manuscript

Noun phrase:    highly entertaining and well written manuscript

Okay. So when a sentence has a series of nouns or noun phrases, we separate the nouns or noun phrases with commas.

To understand the extent and consequences of depression in cardiac bypass patients, it is critical not only to have the perspectives of cardiologists and primary care physicians but also to have the views of nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, clinical investigators, biostatisticians, ethicists, and others.

You will notice that I put a comma before the ‘and.’ That comma (the comma before the conjunction—‘and’)  is called a serial comma. So should we use a serial comma? There’s no hard and fast rule. it is largely a matter of style.

For the record:  I use it and I suggest that you use it, too, as it increases the clarity of your writing.

But what about semicolons in a list? The ONLY  time to use semicolons in a list is if there are already internal commas in the noun phrase.

Our research team includes Paul Bunyon, PhD, a lipid expert;  Jane Calamity, PhD, a basic scientist and expert on the endothelial dysfunction;  John Henry, MD, MS, a maternal fetal medicine physician and a leading expert on preterm birth; and  Ann E. Oakley, MD PhD, an expert in the study of risk factors and biomarkers related to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

If not for the semicolons, this sentence would be difficult to follow. What if the list is preceded by a colon? The same rule holds true. Use commas to separate the items in a list except when there are internal commas, and then use semicolons.

Our research team includes:  Paul Bunyon, PhD, a lipid expert;  Jane Calamity, PhD, a basic scientist and expert on the endothelial dysfunction;  John Henry, MD, MS, a maternal fetal medicine physician and a leading expert on preterm birth; and  Ann E. Oakley, MD PhD, an expert in the study of risk factors and biomarkers related to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Our research team includes:  a lipid expert,  a basic scientist and expert on the endothelial dysfunction,  a maternal fetal medicine physician, and  an expert in the study of risk factors and biomarkers related to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Just a couple of other thoughts about semicolons.

When writing a compound sentence, with no conjunction, you separate the clauses with a semicolon.

The report found that women in science face institutional and environmental barriers to advancement at all career stages; it concluded that broad, innovative action from universities, professional societies, and government funding agencies is required.

However, if you separate the clauses with a conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction.

The Grand Challenge on Transitions from Acute to Chronic Pain seeks  to bring researchers from the neuroplasticity field into the pain field, and the Grand Challenge also seeks to train new investigators in state-of-the-art methods for studying pain.

There is one other place to use the semicolon, and that is when two independent clauses are joined by (dare I say it?) a conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase. Okay, stay calm; there is nothing to be alarmed about. Conjunctive adverbs and transitional phrases are just words that connect two clauses and are sometimes referred to as connectors.

Conjunctive adverbs include: also, anyway, besides, finally, however, meanwhile, otherwise, therefore, etc.  Transitional phrases include: after all, as a result, for example, in conclusion, in other words, etc.

There’s nothing scary here.

When you use a connector to bind two clauses, put a semicolon before the connecting word, and follow it with a comma.

We were planning to write up the results of the experiment; however, we didn’t find what we expected when we ran the experiment a second time.

The national meeting is not until next week; nevertheless, I am already looking forward to it.

So, those are my thoughts on semicolons.

Tip 2: Rules for using bullets

There are rules for using bullets. Who knew?

These rules apply to manuscripts, proposals, and Keynote and PowerPoint slides.

  • Make the form of bullets parallel. For example, is one bullet is a complete sentence, make all of the bullets sentences. If using fragments, do it consistently.
  • If there is no lead in, always capitalize the first letter of a bullet item.
  • If there is a lead in, you can capitalize the first letter of a bullet or use lower case.
  • If the items in a bullet are sentences, end with a period.
  • If the items are fragments, don’t include a period.

Some authorities say to write the bullets in order of importance, but I assume, that in our writing, all of the bullets have equal weight.

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