Semicolons in Lists

A special application for a neglected piece of punctuation.

In most lists, a writer will use a comma to separate the listed items. Some lists, however, include items that already contain commas, in which case adding more commas to the punctuation mix just becomes confusing.

In such cases you can use semicolons rather than commas to separate the items. That way your reader will easily be able to identify the boundaries between each item. Make sure to include the semicolon even before the “and.” For example:

He had written about the gas, electricity, and paper markets; the healthcare industry; and an assortment of regulatory and enforcement agencies.

Be an Autodidact

Supplementing classes with teach-yourself materials is a powerful approach to lifelong learning.

In recent years I have thought a great deal about how people learn as adults.

In the past, when I wanted to improve my skills in, say, a foreign language, I would automatically sign up for a class. Now, especially with the proliferation of web-based resources, I have realized how much I can learn on my own.

Classes are great. They are, however, a small percentage of your overall lifetime. If you care about improving your oral or written communication skills, we would be delighted to have you attend our workshops, but it would also be an excellent idea to get some teach-yourself resources so you can learn on your own. Commitment is key.

To assist with self-study, we have put the entire contents of our four Syntaxis Press books online, and you are welcome to read those for free. They cover grammar, business writing, email etiquette, and presentation skills — the same content we distribute in physical book form to our corporate clients.

Many adults tell me they wish they knew more grammar. What they often do not realize is how much grammatical knowledge they can acquire on their own.

Besides our books, there are all kinds of resources on written communication skills that could be very helpful. I recommend going to your local bookstore and opening different books and seeing which ones appeal to you.

Such choices are very personal. They depend on what you know, don’t know, and want to know. They depend on aesthetic tastes. Sometimes a book that is highly esteemed just won’t appeal to someone that much.

No matter how esteemed a book is, you will acquire nothing from it if it simply sits on your shelf. It is important to take control of your own learning.

Fewer vs. Less

The distinction between these terms depends on more than whether the noun in question is countable or uncountable.

Q. I recently read a magazine article that contained the phrase less than two weeks ago. That sounds correct, but shouldn’t it actually be fewer than two weeks ago?

A. No, the magazine got it right. Below is a quick summary of the guidelines for fewer and less.

In general, use fewer with nouns that can be counted, and less with nouns that cannot. For instance:

Fewer than 100 consultants attended the conference.
She ordered 40 new computers, even though her boss believed that fewer would suffice.
He lost 20 pounds by putting less sugar in his morning coffee.
I wish there were less parsley in my salad.

There are exceptions, however, to this fewer–less distinction. While it is true that units of time, weight, and distance can be counted (they frequently appear with numbers, after all), when people hear a phrase such as 100 pounds, they tend to think of that weight not in terms of its individual component pounds (one pound, two pounds, three pounds, etc.), but rather, as a single blob or lump of weight. In general, therefore, use less with units of weight; the same principle applies to units of time and distance.

That adult male elephant weighs more than 14,000 pounds, but its baby weighs less than 200 pounds.

The meeting lasted less than 20 minutes.
I ran less than three miles before succumbing to a craving for ice cream.

The phrase you mentioned from the magazine article would work the same way. Less than two weeks ago is describing essentially a lump of time and therefore makes more sense than fewer than two weeks ago.

A Comma Conundrum

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A reader posted the following question: When can you use a comma to separate two independent clauses?

The answer: First, we at Syntaxis are impressed by your use of grammar terminology. An independent clause, for those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a group of words containing a subject and a verb, and capable of standing alone as a sentence.

Here are two independent clauses:

the oil company executives were questioned extensively
their explanations were unsatisfactory

You could combine the clauses like this:

The oil company executives were questioned extensively, but their explanations were unsatisfactory.

But not like this:

The oil company executives were questioned extensively, their explanations were unsatisfactory.

The above sentence, with just a comma between the two clauses, is called a comma splice. That is not a good thing; it is considered an error. Think of the comma as being too dainty and delicate to hold apart two independent clauses without the assistance of a coordinating conjunction.

Some good news is that there are only seven such conjunctions, and you can use the mnemonic device (memory aid) fanboys to help you remember them.


A very common punctuation pattern is:

[independent clause][comma][coordinating conjunction][independent clause].

Here are two additional examples of that pattern:

Mark sent the report, and Jane called the client.
She needed some extra money, so she worked a lot of overtime.

Cautionary note: Do not use a comma before the however in the following example.

The oil company executives were questioned extensively; however, their explanations were unsatisfactory.

Note the semicolon. A comma in this position would be incorrect; it would once again create a comma splice, because you are essentially beginning what could be a new sentence. One alternative to the semicolon in this case would be a period:

The oil company executives were questioned extensively. However, their explanations were unsatisfactory.

Is That “That” Really All That Necessary?

Sometimes you need them, sometimes you don't.

Syntaxis workshop participants often have questions about the word that. One common question is whether that can be omitted from certain sentences, as in:

She said he was a hard worker.

instead of

She said that he was a hard worker.

The answer is yes. If the meaning of a sentence without the that is unambiguous, and if you prefer the way the sentence sounds without it, delete away.

Here are several other acceptable sentences with an implied rather than explicit that:

Susan proved she could do it.
Mark and Barbara claimed they would be able to complete the project by 5:00 p.m.
The presentation they gave last night was fascinating.

In some cases, deleting an unnecessary that can help reduce repetition. You have probably encountered sentences with multiple instances of that in quick succession, as in:

He said that the report that Janet was writing would show that our costs had been spiraling out of control.

Instead of writing that three times in this (currently inelegant) sentence, delete a couple of unnecessary ones. Besides reducing repetition, the deletions will also make the sentence sound less convoluted:

He said the report Janet was writing would show that our costs had been spiraling out of control.

Don’t be reckless with the that deletions, though. In some cases, omitting that can create temporary confusion about a sentence’s structure and meaning. For example:

He believed John was a liar.

This sentence is not incorrect, but as you read the first three words, it seems at first as though John is the direct object of the verb believed (as in He believed John). In business writing, where clarity is a top priority, it is often a good idea to preserve the that in sentences with this type of structural ambiguity. Although the structure in our example above will become clear as the reader continues past the word John, including the word that makes the writer’s meaning apparent right away:

He believed that John was a liar.

Below are a few other examples, structurally similar to the one above, where keeping the word that enhances clarity:

She saw that Marshall was struggling. [to avoid the misreading She saw Marshall…]
Jackie Chaney had expected that the verdict would be unfavorable to her client. [to avoid the misreading Jackie Chaney had expected the verdict…]
First-quarter results suggested that a weak economy was having little effect on the company’s performance. [to avoid the misreading First-quarter results suggested a weak economy]

This caveat about clarity should not be taken as grammar and style law. Out there in the world of business writing are plenty of good that-less sentences, structurally like the three examples above, that are sufficiently clear and that simply sound better without the that. Use your good judgment.

Multilingualism: Good for Business

Foreign-language skills help you compete in a global economy.

I am concerned about the poor state of grammar education in many American schools, for multiple reasons. One is that I believe a solid understanding of grammar is critical to good writing. Another is that having a grasp of your own language’s structure helps you when you try to learn others.

Monolingual English-speaking Americans are notoriously bad at picking up other languages. Part of the problem is that so many people in the U.S. — again, I am speaking here of monolingual users of English — have a limited understanding of how languages are and can be constructed.

This is a shame. A familiarity with one or more foreign languages can be a career enhancer. After all, not everyone speaks English!

Far from it, in fact. Despite the increasing dominance of English around the world, multilingual employees can deploy their skills in a global economy to communicate more effectively with clients and overseas colleagues alike. In addition, besides bringing possible professional rewards, learning a foreign language is tremendously rewarding personally. It expands one’s understanding of other modes of communication, of other cultures, and therefore of the larger human community.

There are many language courses out there, but busy professionals don’t always find it convenient — or pleasurable — to be tied to someone else’s class schedule. Fortunately, another option is self-study products (audio lessons, grammar books, multimedia applications, etc.) that people can use on their own, and at a pace that suits them, to develop their skills. Even learning just a few key phrases can be fun and helpful!