Punctuate the elements ofseries clearly

Series range from straightforward lists of like items to extremely convoluted sentences with all manner of nested phrases. For maximal clarity, they require different sorts of punctuation.

With a simple series, place a comma before and, or, and between the items. Your composition teacher may have instructed you otherwise - in literary writing, and in United Kingdom scientific writing, this comma is often omitted on the grounds that it interrupts the flow of words. However, American scientific writing includes the comma, feeling it maximizes precision. Although the comma before and is usually merely a nicety, sometimes it can be important to the meaning of the sentence.

Complex series need something more. When the individual elements in a series contain their own punctuation, separating the elements with commas may confuse readers. Use semicolons, numerals within the sentence, or both.

Confusing: The criteria included that patients with unilateral dislocation were included but those with bilateral dislocation were not, as treatment of one hip may affect the untreated, and the child had to be less than 36 months old when treatment was begun and that no child with other anomalies such as scoliosis, arthrogryposis, or trisomy 21 was included.

Better: All patients (1) exhibited unilateral, but not bilateral dislocation; (2) were younger than 36 months when treatment began; and (3) exhibited no other anomalies such as scoliosis, arthrogryposis, or trisomy 21.

Compound sentences can also be thought of as a type of series. Scientists are extraordinarily fond of coupling sentences, particularly when discussing their methodology. They also rely heavily on a single subject joined to pairs of verbs or adjectives. The words and, but, for, or, or nor are weak ways to join independent statements. Most critics of style shun them. Used to excess, such construction weakens the writing and creates a singsong cadence.

For stronger writing, examine each pair of sentences or compound predicates. First, consider dividing each statement into separate sentences, particularly if the statements are complex and/or long. Condense and tighten the wording. Then, if a weak connector still must be used, put a comma before it.

Weak writing, poorly punctuated: Experimental subjects were kept in a climate-controlled room, and were provided with food. Artificial light was provided, and dogs were acclimated to handling. In the study described herein, the investigators found that L. pneumophila cannot multiply under these conditions but they do survive for they remain viable and this indicates that a great range of habitats is capable of harboring this bacterium.

Better: Dogs were housed in a climate-controlled room with artificial lighting, provided with food, and handled. Under these conditions, L. pneumophila did not multiply, but they did survive, indicating that a range of habitats may harbor this bacterium.

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