Burgess Laughlin

Punctuating independent clauses

8 posts in this topic

I have often seen the following kind of usage:

1. "Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII, didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?"

PROBLEM

Is statement 1 grammatically correct? I don't think it is. Statement 1 contains a complete indicative sentence ("Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII ...") and a complete interrogative sentence ("... didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?").

The error in statement 1 is joining these two independent clauses with a comma alone (after "WWII"). Generally, an objective writer should either connect independent clauses with a semicolon (showing that they are independent, but closely related) or separate the clauses with a period (showing they are fully independent).

SOLUTION?

I think the writer in statement 1 should end the indicative sentence part with a period. Why? To show the reader that the thought is complete and at an end. The writer should then begin the question part of the original statement 1 with an uppercase letter. Why? To show that another and different kind of complete thought is starting.

In some cases, a writer might use a comma to separate two independent clauses of the same kind, but only if he follows the comma with a conjunction. An example is:

2. "Today is Friday, and I need to do my grocery shopping."

EXCEPTIONS?

Are there exceptions to the rule "Do not join independent clauses by a comma alone"?* Yes, it's okay to use a comma to separate independent clauses if the clauses are so short that reading them in a row constitutes one flowing thought:

3. "Here today, gone tomorrow."

Are there other exceptions to the rule?

* Reference: William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, third edition, pp. 5-7.

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Are there other exceptions to the rule?

* Reference: William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, third edition, pp. 5-7.

My copy of Strunk & White is buried somewhere in my "Basement of Dorian Gray," so I can't check any of this against it just now. However, I think that in at least one specific circumstance using a colon can add power and emphasis. Compare these, where A and B represent independent clauses:
  1. A. B?
  2. If A, then B?
  3. A: B?

To my mind, each of these in turn more tightly binds A and B: in the third forumlation hasn't the writer given a very strong indication that he doesn't want the reader to answer B without addressing A? (Note that the preceding sentence takes the same form as 3 above - this is no accident. ;)) Form 3 might also indicate that because of what he's stated in A the writer expects a specific answer to B, so the question could be rhetorical. (That's not the case with my question, though.)

Note also that the first parenthetical in the preceding paragraph again takes the same general form as 3, although with a dash instead of a colon. I use that construct a lot, but usually as an alternative to parentheses (or to include a "parenthetical" inside another parenthetical to avoid nested parentheses/brackets [which I always find to be distracting] :)). I don't know if that usage is strictly correct, but I do think it works for the purpose.

Isn't it interesting how much meaning is contained in punctuation? It's a shame so few writers pay it the attention it deserves.

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Michael, here is my summary with what you have added: While independent clauses generally should not be combined with a comma alone, they may be either separated with a period or connected with (1) a comma and a conjunction; (2) a semicolon; (3) a colon (where the second clause follows logically, perhaps in an inference); or even (4) a dash (where the writer wants to maintain a relation of some kind but at the same time abruptly change direction).

My summary of my summary is to punctuate independent clauses with one of these:

.

, and

;

:

--

Which one should a writer choose? That depends on his purpose.

I have thought about this problem, and I think this follows: In relating independent clauses, be careful of punctuation -- or risk confusion!

Note: I would suggest to beginning writers or to people who spend little time writing that the simplest thing to do is to break a statement containing two or more independent clauses into separate sentences. That may be a little choppy in style, but it will usually be very clear. And clarity is more important than style.

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Michael, here is my summary with what you have added:
That captures it nicely. I can't think of anything to add.

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Sometimes a topic just tickles me from the edge of my subconscious until something makes it pop back out. I recently acquired a replacement for my lost copy of Warriner's English Grammar and Composition*, a book I've used and sworn by since the fourth grade.

Here are some excerpts relevant to this thread:

25a. Use a semicolon between independent clauses not joined by and, but, for, or, nor, yet.

EXAMPLES

  • The last day of summer vacation finally arrived; reluctantly we prepared for the first day of a new school year.
  • She was willing to compromise; you were not.

Do not use a semicolon to join independent clauses unless there is a close relationship in thought between the main ideas of the clauses.

25b. Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by the words accordingly, also, besides, consequently, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, instead, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, similarly, still, therefore, thus, for example, for instance, that is, in fact.

EXAMPLES

  • Paula did well in two subjects; consequently, she will have a high average at the end of the year.
  • My mother is a basketball fan; in fact, she has not missed a single home game in the last three years.
  • Today we do not use such comparisons as "most unkindest cut of all"; Elizabethan plays, however, contain many double comparisons.

[...]

25c. A semicolon (rather than a comma) may be needed to separate independent clauses if there are commas within the clauses.

EXAMPLE

In the seventeenth century, the era of such distinguished prose writers as Sir Thomas Browne, John Donne, and Jeremy Taylor, the balanced compound sentence using commas and semicolons reached a high degree of perfection and popularity; but the tendency of many writers today is to use a fast-moving style with shorter sentences and fewer commas and semicolons. [commas within clauses]

[...]

25e. Use a colon to mean "note what follows."

(1) Use a colon before a list of items, especially after expressions like as follows and the following.

EXAMPLES

  • The application for employment at the manufacturing plant asked the following questions: How old are you? Have you ever worked in a manufacturing plant before? What other jobs have you held? [list introduced by "the following"]
  • Don't miss the following items that will be on sale during the first week in June: ice skates, skis, snow shoes, parkas, ski pants, mittens, etc.

[...]

(2) Use a colon before a long, formal statement or quotation.

EXAMPLES

  • Patrick Henry concluded his revolutionary speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses with these ringing words: Is life so dear, or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but, as for me, give me liberty or give me death! [Note that a formal statement like this need not be enclosed in quotation marks.]
  • Here are four main uses of the comma: (1) to prevent misreading; (2) to separate items in a series; (3) to set off expressions which interrupt the sentence; and (4) to set off introductory phrases and clauses.

[...]

25g. Use the dash to indicate an abrupt break in thought.

EXAMPLES

  • The way the argument started was stupidbut why bring it up again?the problem has been settled.
  • A majority of the graduating classfifty-five percent, in factis going on to college.

25h. Use a dash to set off parenthetical material.

EXAMPLE

According to the Constitution, only one personand that is the Presidentcan appoint justices to the Supreme Court.

25i. Use a dash to mean namely, in other words, that is, and similar expressions that precede explanations.

EXAMPLE

Her decision not to resign was based on one thoughtshe enjoys teaching science to teen-agers.

The dash and colon are often interchangeable in this use. A dash may be considered a little more emphatic than a colon. If the dash is overused, it loses its emphasis.

25j. Use parentheses to enclose information or explanatory matter that is added to a sentence but is not considered of major importance.

The material enclosed by parentheses may range from a single word or number to a short sentence.

EXAMPLES

  • Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) is remembered for her work on the Underground Railroad.
  • In the United States, the term bank holiday (in England the words mean legal holiday) refers to the closing of all banks by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 6,1933.

NOTE: For setting off incidental matter, commas, dashes, and parentheses are frequently interchangeable. Commas and dashes are more common than parentheses.

(1) Be sure that any material enclosed in parentheses can be omitted without changing the basic meaning and construction of the sentence.

IMPROPER USE OF PARENTHESES

George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Ann Evans) wrote poems and several well-known novels. [The idea in parentheses would be better as a nonessential clause set off by commas.]

(2) Punctuation marks are used within parentheses when they belong with the parenthetical matter. Punctuation marks that belong with the main part of the sentence are placed outside of the closing parenthesis.

EXAMPLES

  • My mother's favorite quotation ("Life is real! Life is earnest!") is from "A Psalm of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • During the time when the Articles of Confederation were in effect (1781-1789), many states had tariff barriers against neighboring states.

[...]

In ordinary composition you will have practially no use for brackets. Commas, dashes, and parentheses are preferable as ways of setting off parenthetical matter.

25k. Use brackets to enclose explanations within parentheses or in quoted material when the explanation is not part of the quotation.

EXAMPLE

As the noted author explained to an overflow audience last night, "Much of the writing by the Irish in the twentieth century has been about the effects of the Seventeen [the Irish Revolution of 1917] on the young people of that time."

I remember thinking, after using Warriner's in class for a while, "I must get a copy of this some day." (Yes, I had that thought in fourth grade.) Very nostalgic to review diagramming sentences! B) What a phenomenal work!

=====

*Warriner, John, English Grammar and Composition, Fifth Course

Orlando, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982

I doubt the edition I used in fourth grade was the Fifth Course (and it couldn't have been the 1982 edition, seeing as I was in fourth grade in 1970-71), but the whole series, each level appropriately designed for different grades, is excellent.

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Burgess, I agree that "Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII, didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?" is not grammatically correct, for the reason you indicated, namely that it contains two complete sentences. Normally I would suggest a semicolon, as the author clearly intended the two sentences to be closely tied to each other (so close, in fact, that he used a mere comma to separate them). But in this case the second sentence is a question, whereas the two complete sentences separated by semicolons are almost always statements in my experience. So I would also agree with you that a period is the best solution here:

"Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII. Didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?"

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[...]Normally I would suggest a semicolon, as the author clearly intended the two sentences to be closely tied to each other (so close, in fact, that he used a mere comma to separate them). But in this case the second sentence is a question, whereas the two complete sentences separated by semicolons are almost always statements in my experience. So I would also agree with you that a period is the best solution here:

"Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII. Didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?"

While it may seem strange, there's nothing in the "rules" that forbids using a semicolon here. Warriner's defines a question as an interrogative sentence, and a sentence as an independent clause (although when it stands alone, an independent clause is just a simple sentence).* Therefore a question is an independent clause. Because rule 25a I quoted previously () doesn't restrict what kinds of independent clauses can be joined, using a semicolon is acceptable—"Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII; didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?"

Having said that, I doubt it would have occured to me to use a semicolon in this case. I'd have used a period, too.

=====

*Warriner, op. cit. pp. 37, 57

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While it may seem strange, there's nothing in the "rules" that forbids using a semicolon here. Warriner's defines a question as an interrogative sentence, and a sentence as an independent clause (although when it stands alone, an independent clause is just a simple sentence).* Therefore a question is an independent clause. Because rule 25a I quoted previously () doesn't restrict what kinds of independent clauses can be joined, using a semicolon is acceptable—"Well, evidently we got something to work with Germany after WWII; didn't we take part in the changing of their government system?"

Having said that, I doubt it would have occured to me to use a semicolon in this case. I'd have used a period, too.

=====

*Warriner, op. cit. pp. 37, 57

I like the semicolon here, since what follows it gives identity to the "something" which comes before and is expressive of a smoother mental flow. That's just my personal taste.

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