Monthly Archives: October 2012

Comma usage in complex sentences.

Happy Halloween!  Today we continue our discussion of punctuation marks—turning our attention to comma usage in complex sentences.   

A complex sentence consists of one independent clause and one or more dependent clauses.  An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate.  By itself, an independent clause is a simple, stand-alone sentence (e.g., “If you build it, he will come.”).  A clause is dependent when it is introduced with a subordinating conjunction (e.g., “because,” “although,” “if,” “after,” “before,” “until,” “since,” “so that,” “unless,” “while,” “when,” “where,” “even though”) or relative pronoun (“who,” “whom,” “whose,” “whoever,” “whomever,” “that,” “which”).

Whether to use a comma between an independent clause and a dependent clause depends upon the meaning of and relationship between the clauses.  When the dependent clause is restrictive—or necessary to the meaning of the sentence—don’t use a comma.  When the dependent clause is nonrestrictive—or not necessary to the meaning of the sentence—use a comma.  (Those rules also explain when to use “that” and when to use “which.”  “That” is restrictive and is used without a comma; “which” is nonrestrictive and is used with a comma.)

Those rules often lead to confusion, because the same sentence can be punctuated more than one way and still be correct, depending on its meaning.

Restrictive:

  • Jack did not make an objection because he wanted to win.  (Meaning:  he objected for another reason.)

Nonrestrictive:

  • Jack did not make an objection, because he wanted to win.  (Meaning:  the reason he did not object was that he wanted to win.)

In some situations, use or omission of a comma can cue the reader about the relationship between two clauses and prevent misreading.  Compare the following examples:

  • Joe’s Helicopters argues that the trial court erred because it presented evidence showing that genuine issues of material fact existed.
  • Joe’s Helicopters argues that the trial court erred, because it presented evidence showing that genuine issues of material fact existed.

In the first example, the “because” clause explains the “that” clause element of the main clause (i.e., why the trial court arguably erred).  By contrast, in the second example, the “because” clause explains the main subject and verb of the main clause (i.e., why Joe’s Helicopters is making the argument).

That is all for now …

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Don’t use “however” to start a sentence; use “but” instead.

This week the Scribe cautiously enters the “however” versus “but” debate—a debate that strains American civility even more than the “Obama” versus “Romney” and the “Less Filling” versus “Tastes Great” debates.   The Scribe’s position on this issue of great national importance (endorsed by Bryan Garner, by the way) is to use “however” inside a sentence, while using “but” to start a sentence.  Consider this example:

  • The Scribe drifted down the river in his canoe.  However, he was unaware of the waterfall ahead.

As you can see, the word “however” is languid, and conveys a relaxed and passive tone.  But when “but” is substituted for “however,” the tone become more punchy and aggressive:

  • The Scribe drifted down the river in his canoe.  But he was unaware of the waterfall ahead.

In both examples, the second sentence (danger Scribe!) contrasts with the first sentence (blissful Scribe!).  But the blissful Scribe premise is immediately and aggressively challenged by the use of “but” in the second example—giving it no time to linger and take root in the reader’s mind.

Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, gives the following spirited defense of the use of “but”:

It is a gross canard that beginning a sentence with but is stylistically slipshod.  In fact, doing so is highly desirable in any number of contexts, as countless style books have said (many correctly pointing out that but is more effective than however at the beginning of a sentence).

Consider these examples:

  • The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff.  However, the jury awarded no damages.
  • The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, but awarded no damages.
  • The trial court concluded that it had personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  However, the Ninth Circuit concluded otherwise.
  • The trial court concluded that it had personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  But the Ninth Circuit concluded otherwise.
  • The Scribe was confident that his readers would choose his sentence style over Yoda’s.  However, his readers voted for Yoda in a landslide.
  • The Scribe was confident that his readers would choose his sentence style over Yoda’s.  But his readers voted for Yoda in a landslide.

As you can see, starting your sentence with “but” adds punch.  But beware: although using “but” to start a sentence is acceptable, don’t go overboard!  Use the word judiciously or it will stop having its emphatic effect.

That is all for now …

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Colons are another nifty little mark!

This week we discuss another nifty mark used to punctuate sentences:  colons.

Usage.  A colon informs the reader that what follows the mark proves, clarifies, or lists elements of what preceded the mark.  Colons may be used to separate an independent clause (i.e., a grammatically complete sentence) from another sentence or a list, e.g.:

  • Boeing left some chips on the table:  it agreed to give up the exclusive-supplier agreements it had negotiated with American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Continental Airlines.
  • The Scribe has two favorite hobbies:  yoga and camping.

But colons cannot be used after a grammatically incomplete sentence:

Incorrect:

  •  From 1939 to 1989, Fenway Park’s left field was patrolled by:  Ted Williams, Carl Yazstremski, and Jim Rice.

Correct:

  • From 1939 to 1989, three players patrolled Fenway Park’s left field:  Ted Williams, Carl Yazstremski, and Jim Rice.

Incorrect:

  • GreenCo argues that:  (1) the trial court erred in admitting evidence regarding Evergreen’s lost profits, (2) the error was not harmless, and (3) in the alternative, the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict.

Correct:

  • GreenCo makes three arguments:   (1) the trial court erred in admitting evidence regarding Evergreen’s lost profits, (2) the error was not harmless, and (3) in the alternative, the trial court erred in denying its motion for directed verdict.

Most of the time, if you can replace a colon with the word “namely,” then the colon is the right choice.

EXCEPTION:  Colons may be used after verbs to introduce block quotations, e.g.:

ORS 59.115(5) provides:

Any tender specified in this section may be made at any time before entry of judgment.

If the quotation is not blocked, then use a comma, e.g.:

ORS 59.115(5) provides, “Any tender specified in this section may be made at any time before entry of judgment.”

Capitalization.  Opinions regarding the use of capitalization or lower-case after a colon vary.  The accepted rule is that if the material following a colon is not an independent clause (i.e., a complete sentence), then it’s not capitalized, e.g.:

  • The trial court permitted counsel to take the first step of trial:  voir dire.

Grammarians are split on whether to capitalize the first word after a colon if the material that follows the colon is a complete sentence:  with the most conservative saying that the first word should be capitalized in that situation.  After carefully studying the pros and cons of capitalization, The Scribe finds it easier to adopt the less conservative rule for introducing complete sentences:  because that way all we have to remember is that the first word after a colon is always in lowercase (unless, of course, it is a proper name or otherwise must be capitalized).

That is all for now …

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