May 9, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: using the semicolon & apostrophes to show possession

Posted in apostrophe, semicolons at 6:08 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Using semicolons

I was reading a proposal written by a very talented, sweet, and lovely young researcher, and after reading a while, I wanted to knock her block off!

She uses semicolons willy-nilly. She uses semicolons helter-skelter. They are thrown in all over the place like jimmies on a bowl of ice cream. And I swear not one is used correctly. I was going to send her an email, but I know better when I am in this kind of a mood. Jeez Louise. Look at this, for example.

Recruitment will occur over 24 months; with approximately 50 participants recruited each month.

What’s that all about? Or this one:

It is also important to provide evidence that compared to patients who maintain a healthy weight; patients who are severely overweight increase their subsequent risk of developing disease.

Here’s one more:

The rationale for our approach is that it increases the number of patients in the sample pool; but are at increased risk for being ineligible.

I’m not even going to share with you the scariest example, but I’ll tell you this: it involved 5 semicolons used incorrectly in the same sentence! No kidding.

So in honor of this colleague, I am going to answer the question about when to use semicolons. The answer is ‘not very often,’ but there are some certain situations in which semicolons must be used. (Aside: None of the sentences above call for semicolons.)

1. Use a semicolon in a compound sentence to separate 2 clauses (remember, a clause has both a subject and a verb). If the clauses are separated by a conjunction, don’t use the semicolon, and use a comma instead.

I wanted to see what was on the other side of the river; I found a little park with flowers strewn all about.

I wanted to see what was on the other side of the river, but all I found was a little park with flowers strewn all about.

The experiment was successful, and I was getting ready to publish the results.

The experiment was successful; I was ready to publish the results.

I was going to skip exercising, but I remembered that summer was coming soon.

I am not going to skip exercising; summer is coming soon.

2. Use a semicolon to separate items in a list if there is an internal comma. If there are no internal commas, separate items with commas WHETHER OR NOT the list is preceded by a colon. Using a colon does not automatically mean that you follow it with semicolons. Okay?

There are three specific aims in my study: to observe the behavioral changes in patients, physicians, and other health care providers; to determine the reasons for the changes; and to design an intervention to eliminate the changes.

There are three specific aims in my study: to observe the behavioral changes in patients, to determine the reasons for the changes, and to design an intervention to eliminate the changes.

There are a number of tasks that we must undertake, including instrument design, development, and testing; conduct of focus groups; and collection of survey data.

There are a number of tasks that we must undertake, including instrument design and testing, conduct of focus groups, and collection of survey data.

3. Use a semicolon with a conjunctive adverb. Now, don’t freak out! Conjunctive adverb is a fancy way of saying words that connect or connectors. ‘However’ is a conjunctive adverb.  When an adverb connects two clauses, it is called a conjunctive adverb. Here are some others:

accordingly, also, besides, consequently, finally, furthermore, indeed, instead, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, next, then

Are you calm? Nothing scary here. When a connector (conjunctive adverb) is used, it should be preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma. Again, this is not scary. here are some examples:

I was planning to plant my lettuce seeds today; however, the rain has put a damper on my plans.

The research results confirm our hypotheses; indeed, the results were stronger than I expected.

And that’s it. So don’t throw around semicolons willy-nilly. They have their purposes and should be used wisely.

Tip 2: Apostrophes to show possession

A reader writes:

My mentor recommended I contact you with a question — I’m one of her academic fellows.  I received a proof for an article yesterday, and throughout the article, the editors have added an apostrophe to the phrase “weeks’ gestational age”, where I had previously written “weeks gestational age,” and I was interested in your thoughts on this apostrophe.

Some specific examples:

“Odds of any hospitalization were determined for infants 23 to 44 weeks’ gestational age.”

“Odds of any hospitalization for hyperbilirubinemia were greatest for infants 33 to 38 weeks’ gestational age.”

“Late preterm infants, born between 34 and 36 weeks’ gestational age, account for >70% of preterm deliveries in the US.”

I can find examples of both in the literature, but have not been able to find an explicit style guide, etc.

(In contrast, the editors and I both did not include any apostrophe for the following construction: “… demonstrated that 35 to 37 week gestational age infants experienced excess risk of hospitalization…”)

I look forward to any comments!

This is what I wrote to this fellow:

Actually, the apostrophe is correct because ‘weeks’ is possessive. If you were to turn it around, you would say, “a gestational age of 44 weeks. The ‘of’ there shows possession, so the editor is correct.

Since you’re a fellow, I will add this: even if the editor was not entirely correct, I would not protest too much,. The most important thing for you, at this point, is getting published, so unless the editor is recommending something that is wrong or would hurt the science, we generally acquiesce. If it’s a question of style, we would defer to the editor.

By the way, the last example is correct without an apostrophe because there is no possession.

And that just about does it.

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