May 3, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: respectively & punctuating a question within a sentence

Posted in punctuating a question within a sentence, respectively at 6:28 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Respectively

There seems to be a lot of interest in how to use the word, respectively. Two people wrote and asked about it this week.

A reader writes:

I know in some writing we use the word “respectively” to qualify two statistics stated side-by-side in a sentence. I overheard a news report on NPR where the reporter used it in stating facts comparing two groups.

Mr. Smith received 40% of votes and Mr. Anderson 60%, respectively.

 Is that okay, and why do we use that in the first place?

Let me first say for the record, no, it is not okay. I’ll explain why in a moment.

We use respectively to clarify what statistics or numbers we are referring to. About one-third of the girls had red hair, a quarter were blonds, and the remainder were brunettes (34%, 22%, 44%, respectively).  This tells me that the first percentage—34% refers to redheads, 22% to blondes, and 44% to girls with brown hair. Respectively used like this is saying ‘in this order.’

As for the reader’s example, I suspect the reporter heard ‘respectively’ used with a series of numbers, and thought it sounded learned (pronounced lur nid), but, sadly, in this case it does not sound so smart. That is because it  is superfluous here. We already know where the numbers belong; 40% belong to Smith and 60% to Anderson. We only use ‘respectively’ in situations where there may be ambiguity—where we are not entirely positive where the numbers belong.

You only use respectively when the numbers are separated from the statement as in my example, above. If the reporter said something like Mr. Smith and Mr. Anderson both got votes (40% and 60%, respectively), it would be different. Then we would be clarifying the order and saying that the 40% figure belongs to Mr. Smith.

I figured Goodman and Edwards would have something to say on the subject, so I checked. They said pretty much the same thing I did, but they added a couple of things which are important. First, respectively is always preceded by a comma. Agreed. And second, they note that there is likely to be little confusion when you are only talking about two figures, and sentences can be rewritten to avoid having to use ‘respectively.’

Mr. Smith received 40% of votes, and Mr. Anderson received 60%.

Again, I agree. I’m going to leave the last word for HW Fowler who wrote about both respectively and respective:

Delight in these words is a widespread but depraved taste. Like soldier and policemen, they have work to do, but, when the work is not there, the less we see of them the better; of ten sentences in which they occur, nine would be improved by their removal.

Another reader writes:

I have a question on the use of “respectively.” I can’t seem to find good answers anywhere else. Here is my example sentence:

Company X and its president were awarded with the “Top Businesses” and “Excellent Entrepreneur” Awards respectively by the Shanghai Management Committee.

Should there be commas or parenthesis to set off “respectively,” or would it be better with different construction? I’m not completely sure what to do in this situation.

This is my quick reply to this reader.

There should be a comma both before and after respectively. Respectively indicates that Company X won the first award (Top Businesses) and its president won the second (Excellent Entrepreneur). I would argue that respectively is not needed here. There is no ambiguity. It is clear which award goes to the company and which to the president from the names of the awards, so my first recommendation is to take it out. If you are going to leave it in, then surround it with commas.

[NOTE: All references cited here can be found at languagetips.wordpress,com/about/.]

Tip 2: Punctuating a sentence containing a question

A reader writes:

Hello! I am editing a scientific article that contains the phrase, “…so the question would be why is this group different.” What is the proper punctuation here? A comma after “be” seems okay but not proper in terms of there being a complete phrase following. A comma, quotes, and capital “Why” seems overly formal. A colon?

Also, when referring to patients, I am inclined to change “that” to “who,” as in “patients who received medication.”

Let me answer your second question first.

That is my inclination, too. Patients are people, aren’t they? And while I generally edit the sentence, it is important to note that ‘that’ is equally correct when referring to groups of people. ‘Patients that received medication’ is fine, too.

So this is really a dealer’s choice. I love it when that happens.

To your question about how to punctuate sentences containing a question, you can do a number of things here that are considered correct by different stylebooks.

So the question would be: “why is this book different?”

So the question would be “Why is this book different?”

So the question would be, why is this book different?

So the question would be, Why is this book different?

So the question would be: why is this book different?

So the question would be: Why is this book different?

I like the second one which is also AMA style. It’s very clear and suits my sensibilities.  But, honestly, any are okay.

I just want to add a couple of things to this. If the question does not end the sentence, end the sentence with a period (or other appropriate punctuation).

“Why is this book different?” is the fundamental question.

If the question posed is an indirect question, no question marks should be used.

He wondered whether there was a reason that the book seemed to be different.

Remember, except for the last two rules, it’s all really a matter of style. If you’re writing a manuscript, an editor will most likely change what you have to conform  to the journal’s style, so don’t worry about it too much.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks for clarifying how to punctuate a question within a sentence. The last example speaks to me. It’s nice to have options.


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