Scientific English as a Foreign Language
Answers to Lesson of March 27, 1998

Today I follow closely the book "The Elements of Style", by Strunk and White, Macmillian Company, New York (1972). If you buy only one English grammar/composition book, this is it. It's only 78 pages, but it has all of the important points.

  1. 1. Use commas to separate items in a list of three or more.
    1. black and green
      red, white, and blue
      copper, silver, or gold

    Commas should come before the 'and' or 'or'. Otherwise it's not clear if the last two are one item or two. An example is

      He lunched on a sandwich, and a glass of milk and coffee.

    Now is that a glass of (milk and coffee), or a glass of (milk), and (coffee)? However, in publication lists or company name, where it is clear that the operative unit of interest is individual people, it's acceptable to drop the last comma.

      a publication by Burnham, Colton and Pollock
      Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated

  1. 2. Use TWO commas to 'bracket' parenthetic expressions in the middle of sentences. At the end or beginning of a sentence, use just one comma. A parenthetic expression is one that you could just as well put in paratheses, i.e. it concerns information not essential to the sentence.
    1. The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.
      Majorie's husband, Colonel Nelson, paid us a visit yesterday.
      I think, yes, that it's true.
      The lawn mower, which is in the gargage, is broken.

    BUT! (Review the lesson of January 23.)

      The lawn mower that is in the gargage is broken.

    Dates and titles are usually parenthetic. Thus write,

      James Wright, Jr.
      Well, Susan, this is a fine mess that you are in.
      Horace Fulsome, Ph.D., presided February to July, 1972
      April 6, 1956
      Wednesday, November 13, 1929

    But note that 6 April 1958 takes no commas.

  1. 3. Use a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.
    1. The early records of the city have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
      The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.

    If the sentence is short, the comma is not required.

      Go away and leave me alone!

    BUT! Do not use commas to join two independent clauses; semicolons and periods are preferred.

      Stevenson's romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures.
      Stevenson's romances are entertaining. They are full of exciting adventures.

  1. 4. The general rule about punctuation is that it should be used to increase the clarity of your writing.
  1. 5. A practical guideline about commas is to read your sentence aloud, and insert commas where you make slight pauses.

Punctuate the following. Optional punctuation is indicated by parentheses.

A. The French and American flags are red, white, and blue.
B. No, I didn't have time to write the paper.
C. You may take the book that is on my desk.
D. You may take the book, which is on my desk.
E. I don't like the subject; it's boring for me.
F. I don't like the subject(,) and I hate doing the homework.
G. The paper is written by Smith, Rogers(,) and Jones.
H. They refer to the publication by Lu, Chu(,) and Wu.
I. I shall be at the meeting from April 10, 1998 to 21 April 1998.
J. The year of publication, 1997, was not mentioned.
K. Wherever you may be in the future, our wishes go with you, and we are certain of your continued success in your field.

If your cursor finds a menu item followed by a dash,
And the double-clicking icon puts your window in the trash,
And your data is corrupted 'cause the index doesn't hash,
Then your situation's hopeless and your system's gonna crash!

-author unknown

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Created April 30, 1998, by Nancy Burnham and Fred Hutson.