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Punctuate for clarity

Writing the words "a woman without her man is nothing" on the chalkboard, the professor directed the students to punctuate it correctly. The men wrote "A woman, without her man, is nothing." The women wrote "A woman: without her, man is nothing." Punctuation is everything.

Punctuation has one purpose - to help the reader understand the structural relationship within (and thus the intention of) a sentence. For this reason, the best approach to punctuation is almost always the simplest. Punctuation should be almost automatic. If you are puzzled over how to punctuate a particular sentence, you probably have created a sentence that will puzzle readers too, no matter how you punctuate it. Rewrite the sentence in a form that requires only simple punctuation.

Prefer the period

Semicolons, colons, and dashes indicate that two statements are closely related. Their use sometimes also helps condense material. However, sentences separated in this way are usually more difficult to read. The trend in scientific writing is to eliminate semicolons, substituting separate sentences with periods.

Older style: A mutant strain might be designated "red"; its genetic symbol, r.

Newer style: A mutant strain might be designated "red." Its genetic symbol would be r.

Semicolons are still appropriately used to separate items in a series with internal commas.

Larval feeding habits of flies include: parasitizing beetles, moths, and other insects; mining in fern leaves, stems, and other plant tissue; burrowing in carrion, offal, and dung; and scavenging decaying vegetation.

Anytime a phrase would be nonsense without one or more commas, a dash, or parentheses, use them. This rule is the rationale behind all the more specific ones. When you have finished writing, check each sentence for reading errors associated with incorrect punctuation or lack of punctuation. If two parts might be joined erroneously, they should be separated by punctuation.

Pay particular attention to sentences that vary from the usual "subject-verb-object" word order (see SVO). The possibility of erroneous joining is nearly always present when the introductory phrase contains a verb of some form, such as an infinitive or a participle.

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Reading error possible: Although additions of monensin were discontinued after 9 days the fermentors did not resume gas production.

Alternative interpretations clarified by punctuation: Although additions of monensin were discontinued, after 9 days the fermentors did not resume gas production. OR Although additions of monensin were discontinued after 9 days, the fermentors did not resume gas production.

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