Writing for Scholarly Publication: Mastering Basic Punctuation

by David Fox
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan

WARNING: This article contains Oxford commas!

I confess to being a punctuation nerd – or, to use Lynne Truss’s slightly more dignified term, a punctuation stickler (1). I consider a well-punctuated paper to be akin to a fine work of art. Now, I realize that Brain-Work followers are superior in every way, and so I apologize in advance if some may feel that they already know it all when it comes to punctuation. If you don’t need this column, gentle reader, then I suspect you know someone who does.

Why is punctuation important? Good punctuation, usually without our realizing it, helps to convey meaning, promote understanding, and allows a piece of text to be read quickly and efficiently. Bad punctuation does the opposite. Any reputable scholarly journal will want to adhere to accepted standards of punctuation. Authors may help speed up the processing of their manuscripts by paying careful attention to their punctuation.

One would think that most librarians who aspire to be writers have already mastered the art of basic punctuation. However, over four years as Editor-in-Chief at Partnership, I found that almost all manuscripts submitted to the journal needed a large number of punctuation corrections. Some of these corrections were due to minor lapses of attention, but in many cases it was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently, demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

Some punctuation practices are well established. Others are optional and subject to the author’s or editor’s preference. This blog post will deal with the basics of commas and semi colons: two of the most commonly misused punctuation symbols.

The comma

(One of the clearest and most concise punctuation guides I’ve found on the Web is the University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation by Larry Trask. According to Trask, “There are four types of comma: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas” (Summary of Commas).

A listing comma, as the name implies, separates words, phrases, or clauses in series.

Edwin has published many articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings.

The most common pitfalls involve surveys, the analysis of qualitative data, and the omission of human ethics permissions.

A joining comma combines two independent clauses and is followed by one of the connecting words: and, or, but, yet or while.

The journal accepts online submissions in MS Word format, and authors must register on the system in order to submit.

This may seem an obvious point, but it is a significant one.

A gapping comma can be used to avoid repetition of words that have already occurred in a sentence.

It was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently, demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

instead of

It was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently; it was obvious that the writer was demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

Bracketing commas usually come in pairs. They set off a weak interruption which could be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning substantially. A single bracketing comma can also appear at the beginning or end of a sentence.

If you don’t need this column, gentle reader, then I suspect you know someone who does.

Good punctuation, usually without our realizing it, helps to convey meaning.

Amanda exercised admirable self-control, for the most part.

The semi-colon
Semi-colons are easy. They have only two main uses:
1) To join two independent clauses without the use of a coordinating conjunction:

Errors in methodology will almost certainly undermine the results of a research study; serious flaws may render a manuscript unpublishable.

NOTE, however –
Three or more independent clauses should be joined using commas.

Originally the plantations were rather small, there were fewer slaves than colonists, and social discrimination was less harsh than in the eighteenth century (MLA 86).

(This is an example of the use of the listing comma.)

2) To separate items in a series when one or more of those items contain commas:

The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards; reimbursement for research expenses, research days, and release time; development of research competencies, lecture series, and workshops; and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

A common mistake with semi-colons is to use them where a colon should be used instead. A colon is meant to indicate that what comes next is an elaboration of what came before.

Correct: It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak and another to hear.

Incorrect: It takes two to speak the truth; one to speak and another to hear.

(A semi-colon joins two independent clauses. In the incorrect example above “one to speak and another to hear” is a sentence fragment, not an independent clause.)

Another mistake is to use a semi-colon where a comma would suffice.

Incorrect: The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards; reimbursement for research expenses; development of research competencies; and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

Correct: The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards, reimbursement for research expenses, development of research competencies, and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

(In the above example, semi-colons are not necessary as the items in series do not themselves contain commas.)

The serial or “Oxford” comma
Authorities differ concerning the use of a comma preceding “and” or “or” before the final item in a list. I have used serial commas throughout this article.

Edwin has published many articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings.

The most common pitfalls involve surveys, the analysis of qualitative data, and the omission of human ethics permissions.

However, typical British practice is to omit the final comma.

Hungarian is spoken in Hungary, in western Rumania, in northern Serbia and in parts of Austria and Slovakia. (Trask)

Personally, I would prefer a comma after “Serbia” in this sentence.

Those who argue against the serial comma claim that it is redundant and contrary to conventional practice. They reason that one shouldn’t need both a comma and a conjunction. Others maintain that consistent use of serial commas helps to avoid ambiguity.

Regardless of one’s opinion on this controversy, a number of leading writers’ manuals, including The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford Style Manual all recommend use of the serial comma (Serial comma). With such widespread endorsement, it makes sense to adopt the practice of using serial commas – especially when writing for a journal that uses any of these major style guides.

In Conclusion
There are four standard ways to join two independent clauses:
1) Use a semi-colon

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking; it is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

2) Use a comma and a conjunction

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking, and it is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

3) Use a main clause and dependent clause joined by a conjunction

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking and is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

(In this example, “Information literacy” is the subject of both clauses. A comma is not required before the conjunction “and”.)

4) Use two separate sentences

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking. It is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

I would guess that nearly half of the punctuation corrections I have made as an editor involve misuse of options 1, 2, or 3 above. “What’s the big deal?” you might say. It matters because reputable journals care about these small details; the more attention an editor needs to give to the mechanics of a paper, the less time there may be to consider its actual content. This is not rocket science. It’s just as easy to do it right as to do it wrong. Unleash your inner stickler!

Works Cited

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Serial comma. Wikipedia. 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma>

Trask, Larry. Guide to Punctuation. University of Sussex, 1997. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.
<http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/>

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. Print.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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