November 3, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: commas again & nesting parentheses

Posted in commas, parentheses at 5:59 am by dlseltzer

Life is good. Every time that I think I have run out of things to say and have no idea what to write about in the wlut, someone sends me a proposal or some other writing to review. And there you have it—more topics for the wlut. These aren’t new, but a brief review is good for the soul (and the manuscript, too).

Tip 1: A review of comma usage

We have talked about how and when to use commas many times, but commas continue to be one of the biggest bugaboos of our writing. In the past, I have written about lots of the rules surrounding comma use (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/commas/page/2/). Today I want to focus on just two rules: those associated with using a comma with ‘and’ in a sentence—I am not talking about the serial or Oxford comma—there are no lists associated with these rules. Here is an example:

We have assembled an outstanding group of project leaders, co-investigators, and staff, and  our multidisciplinary faculty has an impressive track record of prior collaboration.

[NOTE: All sentences in this wlut have been greatly edited to fit the discussion and to ensure author anonymity.]

The above sentence is a compound sentence, that is, each clause of the sentence could stand on its own as a complete sentence if not joined by ‘and.’

We have assembled an outstanding group of project leaders, co-investigators, and staff.

Our multidisciplinary faculty has an impressive track record of prior collaboration.

This is the rule: in a compound sentence, place a comma before the conjunction that joins the sentences. Common conjunctions include ‘and,’ ‘’but,’ ‘so,’ and ‘or,’ for example. So, if the clause on either side of the conjunction is independent, that is, it can be a complete sentence on its own, USE A COMMA.

Here’s another example:

The core infrastructure is depicted in Exhibit 6, and the infrastructure will provide leadership, administration, management, evaluation and dissemination activities to enable the conduct of research.

Each clause can stand on its own, and when joined, a comma is required before the conjunction:

The core infrastructure is depicted in Exhibit 6.

The infrastructure will provide leadership, administration, management, evaluation and dissemination activities to enable the conduct of research.

Let me state the rule again: in a compound sentence, place a comma before the conjunction that joins the sentences.

The other rule is related to the rule above and is another frequent source of our writing mistakes. This is the rule: if you have a sentence with multiple parts or clauses and one part is not independent, that is, it cannot stand on its own as a complete sentence, then don’t use a comma before the conjunction.

Here’s an example:

Adolescents access healthcare services at high rates through hospital emergency rooms and account for a large percentage of repeat ER visits.

In this example, the first clause can stand on its own as a sentence, but the second part cannot stand on its own. It is missing a subject.

Adolescents access healthcare services at high rates through hospital emergency rooms.

account for a large percentage of repeat ER visits

Although the subject (adolescents) of the second clause is understood (and that is why it is considered a clause), it is not stated, and, as a result, that part of the sentence cannot stand alone. This part of the sentence is also considered a sentence fragment.

Here is another example:

A publication committee will plan products from the research and will implement policies and procedures for authorship and dissemination of results.

In this sentence, there is an independent clause:

A publication committee will plan products from the research.

But the remainder is a sentence fragment and cannot stand on its own.

will implement policies and procedures for authorship and dissemination of results

Therefore, DO NOT USE A COMMA.

Let me restate the rule:  If a sentence has one completely independent clause that can stand alone as a sentence and is joined by a conjunction and a sentence fragment that cannot stand on its own, then NO comma is used before the conjunction.

In summary:

With two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, use a comma.

With one independent clause joined to a sentence fragment by a conjunction, do not use a comma.

Here’s another way to remember this rule: if you have a compound sentence use a comma before the conjunction; if it is not a compound sentence, then don’t use the comma.

Tip 2: Nesting parentheses

This is the sentence that caught my eye prompting this review of parentheses within parentheses:

 The framework suggests that predisposing factors (e.g., demographics, attitudes, health beliefs, social structure), enabling factors (e.g., personal, family, community supports and resources), and need­s (e.g., perceived and evaluated (“objective”) symptoms/functioning) facilitate or impede health service use and delivery.

What caught my eye was the much punctuated (‘objective”) embedded in a longer parenthetical phrase: (e.g., perceived and evaluated (“objective”) symptoms/ functioning).

First, there is never a need for  setting a word off with both quotation marks AND parentheses. I want to make that very clear. Too much punctuation makes writing difficult to read and comprehend.

In this case, I think the quotation marks would suffice. I would normally use parentheses, but the word is already nested in a parenthetical statement, and for clarity (and also for grace), I would recommend that you don’t embed a parenthetical remark within a parenthetical statement. That being said, if you do feel the need to use parentheses within parentheses, then the secondary parentheses should really be brackets, i.e., [ ]. They look like squared off parentheses, composed of straight lines. As I say, however, you should not do it. And if you feel the need to add still another parenthetical remark (parentheses within parentheses within parentheses)—and as I say, don’t do it— then the tertiary parentheses should be curly brackets, i.e., { }. But as I say, don’t do it. Enough said.

3 Comments »

  1. Grace said,

    I’ve found a kindred spirit (a more eloquent, knowledgeable one)! I’ve been seeing so many commas separate fragments from independent clauses, I was beginning to wonder if the grammar rules had relaxed.

  2. horatio cornblueth said,

    Is is necessary to restate subjects in compound sentences? For example, I finished the marathon, and am proud of my achievement vs. I finished the marathon, and I am proud of my achievement. Is it grammatically ok to not restate the subject? Another example: John enjoyed his massage, and left feeling renewed vs. John enjoyed his massage, and he left feeling renewed.

    • dlseltzer said,

      It is fine to leave out the noun in the second clause. The sentence, then, is no longer considered a compound sentence,and there would be no comma before ‘and.’


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