A Question of Punctuation Style

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I'm not a big fan of semicolons. I could actually find the passage I'm going to go by searching for a semicolon in the document. It took ten seconds. I don't use semicolons very often. So imagine what I'm thinking when the following passage:

We just don't pick out features that depend on genetic structure. We sometimes oversimplify, and some people defy categories. There are borderline cases. We haven't thought to put a name to every category that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy.

comes back from the editor changed to this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

It's not just the succession of semicolons. The final item in the series has an 'and' in front of it, as if it had been a series of commas. When you combine two sentences, it's perfectly fine to use a semicolon or to use a comma with 'and'. When you have a longer list, you can use several commas, and then the last item has a comma with 'and'. Some people like to use semicolons for a longer series. I don't like to, but it's not a grievous punctuation move. But you don't put an 'and' after the last semicolon the way you would with a series of commas. That seems to me to be as bad as putting after the sole semicolon when you're just combining two sentences into one.

But then I don't like what happens when you do it just with semicolons:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categories; there are borderline cases; there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Also, the editors clearly preferred something like what they did rather than what I had. What I'm hoping is that they'll accept this:

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify, some people defy categories, there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to.

Or does anyone have any better suggestions?

8 Comments

"Granted, we sometimes oversimplify, some people defy categories" sounds to me like we're oversimplifying by claiming that some people defy categories. I don't think that's your intention.

If that were the whole thing, it might, but it's a series of clauses, and those are just the first two. Also, what you have there would be ungrammatical, since the series of clauses needs to have a comma followed by 'and' before its final clause.

"Granted, there are complicating factors: we sometimes oversimplify, some people defy categorization, there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to."

That should solve the semicolon issue, and the semi-ambiguity (which I also fell prey to on my first reading) pointed out by Stephen Cathers. Boiling it down to a nice simple list seems both clearest from a meaning standpoint, and simplest from a punctuation one.

Note: I've changed "defy categories" to "defy categorization" since the former made it sound like some people are rebelling against the whole concept of racial categories, and I don't think that's what you meant.

That is a significant improvement. I think that's the best candidate so far.

wink's suggestion is quite an improvement from the original editors' suggestion; the use of the colon to delineate the series is a much better rhetorical method.

As an aside, I personally cannot stand the use of semicolons for ordinary series (i.e. any series that does not contain commas within the members of the series, such as a list of cities with state specified). Semicolons are so useful because they are less common than commas and perform a different (albeit similar) function, and it makes no sense to me to confuse the functions of the two by using them interchangeably.

wink's done a very good job. Since I do employ semicolons frequently (when some items in a list themselves have commas), the improved version could read:

"Granted, there are complicating factors: we sometimes oversimplify; some people defy categorization; there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to."

The final item is not preceded by another semicolon but by a comma and "and."

But, lacking complicated items in the list, there really is no reason to use semicolon's in wink's version. I would use semicolon's in the following construction:

"Granted, there are complicating factors: we sometimes oversimplify, especially when blah; some people defy categorization, some intentionally and some not; there are borderline cases, and there are categories that might be useful in explaining voting behavior or political philosophy that we haven't thought to put a name to."

Wink stole my suggestion. I'm ambivalent toward semicolons, particularly in a list, but colons I love.

Granted, we sometimes oversimplify even while some people defy categorization. Indeed, there are both borderline cases and as yet unnamed categories which may prove helpful in the analysis (or explication) of voting behavior and political philosophy.

I prefer 2 sentences rather than one. As a minister, I have found that the shorter sentences communicate content with greater clarity. Since I do not have your context, I am not sure that I have understood your intent, but I thought that the 2 sentence option was worth considering.

Thank-you for your commentary reviews. I am pastorjohn at the www.bible.org forum.

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