January 26, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: punctuation in citations & semicolon

Posted in punctuation and citations, semicolons and commas at 6:47 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Punctuation and citations and quotes

A reader writes:

I was helping my son with a paper last night and one of the issues with quotes and commas came up.  Mind helping me on this one?

It was a series of short sentences with exclamations that were quoted and then followed by the citation.  What do you do with that?

 This is what he wrote:

 While walking towards the establishment of his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, Ebenezer exclaims, “Why it’s old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it’s Fezziwig alive again” (Dickens 34).

 The end sentence, “…Fezziwig alive again!” was to have an exclamation point.  He left it out so he could put the period at the end of the citation.  Do you keep the exclamation point AND the period?  I didn’t know the answer.

An important thing to remember is that exclamation points and question marks almost always have their own set of rules that don’t correspond to the more common rules relating to commas and periods. That’s the case, here.

As a reminder, here are some rules for punctuating a parenthetical citation:

When citing regular text, the parenthetical citation should be within the punctuation.

Most popular press and public grammar issues concerned misplaced apostrophes and the use of apostrophes to make words plural as in potato’s and lemon’s (Truss 49).

Note that there is no comma between the author’s name and the page number.

If the author’s name is in the text, just the page number is required in the citation.

According to Truss, most grammar issues are related to the misuse of apostrophes (49).

If you are quoting text, the period goes outside of the quotation marks next to the parenthetical citation.

“Another writer tells us that punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop” (Truss 7).

BUT, and we are now safely back at the original question: How do we write a citation and punctuate the sentence when the quoted material ends with an exclamation point?

Well, remember at the beginning of this, I told you that exclamation points and question mark behave differently? Well, this is an example. This is the rule:

When using a parenthetical citation with a quotation that ends in an exclamation point or question mark, keep the original punctuation inside the quotation, and place a period after the parenthetical citation.

“Might the tide turn, however? Are there any reasons to be cheerful on behalf of punctuation?” (Truss xxv).

Which brings us back to the example in the original question which should look like this:

 While walking towards the establishment of his old boss, Mr. Fezziwig, Ebenezer exclaims, “Why it’s old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it’s Fezziwig alive again!” (Dickens 34).

And there you have it.

Tip 2: The semicolon

A reader writes:

I think that you need to do a piece on the semicolon.  I do not know whether it has gone out of style, but it seems to me that the poor thing has a place.

Perfect timing. After reading so many proposals where the poor semicolon was misused and abused, I was thinking that it must be time for a semicolon refresher. This is our third foray into the wonderful world of the semicolon, but it’s pretty clear that its time has come, again.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. We  recently talked about using a comma in a compound sentence in which the independent clauses are separated by a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but.’

We will estimate the extent to which patients request prescriptions for selected drugs, and we will assess the extent to which they had these prescriptions filled at least once.

Well, if you have a compound sentence with no conjunction and, as a result, no comma, then you separate the clauses with a semicolon.

We will estimate the extent to which patients request prescriptions for selected drugs;  we will, then, assess the extent to which they had these prescriptions filled at least once.

In a list (whether introduced by a colon or not), you use a semicolon to separate items ONLY if the items already have internal commas; otherwise, separate items with commas. In this case, the semicolon is used to add clarity to the sentence.

The total health care costs of participants receiving the intervention will: (a) decrease over the timeframe of the study, (b) show a similar change as is seen for individuals receiving traditional counseling, and (c) be lower than among age- and sex-matched adults from the same clinical practices.


Providers may find this intervention compelling for its potential to reduce staffing needs, including physicians, nurses, and other staff; facilitate communication between patients, health providers, and family members; and supply a forum for the collection, management and presentation of data.


Some people think that if we introduce a list with a colon, we always need to follow it with semicolons. But that’s not true; we only use the semicolon if there are internal commas in the list.

Stay with me, we are almost done now. I just need to tell you what a conjunctive adverb is. Conjunctive adverbs act as conjunctions in that they connect two clauses; however, they are weaker in meaning than conjunctions. Here are common conjunctive adverbs:

after all                                         in addition                                    next

also                                               incidentally                                   nonetheless

as a result                                      indeed                                           on the contrary

besides                                          in fact                                           on the other hand

consequently                                 in other words                              otherwise

finally                                            instead                                          still

for example                                   likewise                                        then

furthermore                                  meanwhile                                    therefore

hence                                            moreover                                      thus

however                                       nevertheless

Because they are weaker than conjunctions, we set them off with a semicolon before and a comma after.

I was going to finish the experiment today; however, I left the samples at the other lab.

It seems as if the proposal will be funded; therefore, we need to make sure everything is in order to start the study.

That’s pretty much it. We covered the main stuff anyway. This is all you really need to know to keep your semicolons happy.

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