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Serial Commas, Ellipses, And Em-Dashes

Aug 17, 2007
Serial Commas: There is much confusion over the proper use of serial commas. It is generally accepted in today's writing to include the final serial comma before the conjunction and the final word or phase in the series. For instance:
"My favorite colors are purple, yellow, and pink."
"I like to get up early, walk on the beach, and collect shells."

This rule is cited in Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual. The purpose of including this final comma is for clarity and to give each word or phrase equal weight in the sentence. There is a story which illustrates this tenet.

A man wrote a will leaving his estate to his three children, "Richard, John and William" (note the absence of the final serial comma.) The judge interpreted this will to divide the man's estate leaving half to Richard and the other half (or one-quarter each) to John and William. Their father intended to divide his estate into thirds; however, the absence of the final serial comma gave John and William together the same weight as Richard. Had there been a comma included before the "and," each of the sons would have received a third of their father's estate.

Ellipses are another punctuation riddle with different sources touting the correct use of ellipses. Generally speaking, there are two ways to insert ellipses into sentences. The first is preferred, using the automatic symbol insert key from a computer word-processing program. This is found under "Insert" or "Symbol" selections from the top tool bar. A search under the Help key will also locate this symbol. Ellipses are used to indicate that a sentence is left incomplete and unended; it suggests a thought abruptly stopped.

Many experts advocate including a space before and after the inserted ellipses; others do not. The other way to insert ellipses is by using the space bar and periods from the keyboard in this way: space, dot, space, dot, space, dot, space. If you are not comfortable using the automatic word-processing function, feel free to use the alternative hand-inserted method.

The important consideration is to be consistent throughout your document. If the ellipse ends a sentence, do not add a final period; however, you can include an exclamation point or question mark after the ellipse.

Em-Dash: The use of double-hyphen marks was common when typewriters were the sole source of mechanized communication. These marks were used to indicate emphasis or weighted pause in a sentence. An em-dash is the width of a capital "M," and is also automatically inserted from the Symbol choice from the word processing tool bar. There are no spaces inserted either before or after an em-dash. With the advent of computer word processing systems, it is always preferred to use an em-dash instead of a double hyphen.
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