Commas, Periods (full stops), and semicolons: ellipses, dots and dashes.
I’m sure you all know that a comma denotes a pause in a sentence and most of you have read the anonymous talker’s post on comma splice, so I will not go over that ground again.
Serial commas appear between items in a list, for example.
“I leave my entire estate to my daughters, Karen, Katie, and Kathleen.”
If you read the above sentence aloud, you will know where to put the commas from the pauses required. Karen, Katie, and Kathleen, having been given equal importance, will share the estate equally. Some people have been taught that “and” should not be used after a comma. This is not incorrect: it is a matter of style and usage. It is more common today to place a comma after “and” in a list, especially in legal documents because it makes the meaning clearer.
“I leave my entire estate to my daughters, Karen, Katie and Kathleen.”
Without the comma after Katie, the above sentence could be wrongly understood to mean that Karen is to get half and Katie and Kathleen will share the rest whereas the intent was that each daughter would receive an equal amount.
Commas are also used to show a pause before an independent clause, for example:
“Because she was late and feeling grumpy, Kathleen decided to stay at home.”
The first clause “Because she was late and feeling grumpy” would not stand alone as a sentence, so the comma is needed, even though the second clause “Katherine decided to stay at home” is an independent clause, and would stand alone.
“Karen left at 9:00 a.m., but Katie didn’t leave until 11.00, and Kathleen decided to stay at home.”
Both the second clause “but Katie didn’t leave until 11.00” and the third “and Kathleen decided to stay at home” are dependent on the first. Neither would stand alone as a sentence, so again the commas are needed before the “but” and the “and”.
In the next sentence, there are three independent clauses.
“Karen left at 9.00am; Katie didn’t leave until 11.00; Kathleen decided to stay home.
Three independent but related clauses have been formed into one sentence using semicolons.
The semicolon can also help us with our lists. Commas are fine for a simple list.
“Karen has been to New York, Paris, and Rome.
But sometimes lists are more complicated than that.
“Karen has been to New York, USA; Paris, France; and Rome, Italy.
Because our list items contain commas themselves, we have promoted the previously used commas to semicolons.
You may see semicolons used at the end of dot points in legal documents. This format is old-fashioned and no longer used.
Phew . . . Well after that, the colon is going to be a breeze. It can be used between two main clauses of a sentence, where the second clause relates to the first:
“He had two options: show up, or ring in sick.”
The colon (but never a semicolon) is also used to start a list, a numbered list or a series of dot points. The clause preceding a colon should be able to stand on its own as a sentence.
A good tip for checking whether a colon is needed is to consider whether it could be replaced with the word “namely”.
“There are three different routes that you could take, namely the mountain route, the coastal route, and the motorway”
“There are three different routes that you could take: the mountain route, the coastal route, and the motorway.”
“The three routes you could take are, namely the mountain route, the coastal route, and the motorway.”
The sentence above doesn’t make sense, so the colon cannot be used.
See more from Pam on the misuse of colons HERE.
The Dot Point
If dot points following a colon are not full sentences, they should not begin with a capital letter and only the last dot point should end with a full stop.
There are many kinds of fruit:
Make sure that you:
- lock all the doors
- close the gate
- put the rubbish out.
But if you are using full sentences for your dot points, start them with a capital letter and end them with a full stop—and keep them to a maximum of three lines each.
Before leaving for the airport:
- Check that your flight has not been delayed.
- Check that you have your photo ID.
- Make sure that your luggage is locked and labelled.
- Make sure you have your reservation reference.
- Check in online to save time when you get to the departure terminal.
The Full Stop or Period