34 posts categorized "Punctuation"

February 16, 2010

Lists, Part 1: Parallelism

Timothy McAdoo by Timothy McAdoo

When I feel overwhelmed with tasks, I often make a list (or two or three).

Because making lists helps me organize my thoughts, I also tend to begin a rough draft of a writing assignment as a series of ideas or bullet points. In most cases, I will expand and expound on these ideas, turning them into complete paragraphs. But, sometimes a list helps clarify an idea as well. As the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says, a list “helps the reader understand the organization of key points.”

In the first five parts of this six-part series about lists in APA Style, I will cover three aspects of list style and punctuation:
  • parallelism,
  • serial commas, and
  • semicolons.
And, I’ll detail three types of lists:
  • lettered,
  • numbered, and
  • bulleted.
Finally, in Part 6 I’ll summarize and post a table showing the typical uses for each type of list.


For a general guideline about creating lists, the Manual states that “all items should be syntactically and conceptually parallel” (p. 63). This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to use wording that’s not precisely parallel when first getting your ideas onto paper. On the second draft, assess the structure of your lists carefully.

In this example, I’ve underlined the elements that should be parallel in syntax:

Participants were told to study each picture, to turn the page when the bell rang, and that they should ask about anything unclear in the instructions.

That sentence conveys the meaning, but the lack of parallelism weakens its impact. Consider this alternative:

Participants were told to study each picture carefully, to turn the page when the bell sounded, and to ask about anything they found unclear in the instructions.

And, creating parallelism is not just about making the sentence "sound right." A parallel sentence structure makes it easier for a reader to compare like items and to follow sequences of action, much like a well-structured table makes it easier for a reader to scan and compare entries across rows.

In the following, the writer may think he or she is avoiding redundancy by omitting two instances of “Practice Group”:

Children in Practice Group A and in Groups B and C received no visual stimuli, whereas those in Practice Group D were shown an image of a lion.

But, in technical writing, this type of inconsistency can cause confusion. Was there a substantial difference between a “practice group” and a “group”? Probably not, but it might give your reader pause, especially if both terms are used throughout your paper.

There are many ways you might rewrite this sentence with a parallel structure. Here’s one example:

The researchers provided no visual stimuli to children in Practice Groups A, B, and C, whereas researchers projected an image of a lion for children in Practice Group D.

More examples of parallel structure can be found on pages 84–86 of the Manual.

More to Come

In Part 2, I’ll discuss APA Style guidelines for using commas and semicolons in lists.

Lists, Part 1  |  Lists, Part 2  |  Lists, Part 3

February 04, 2010

Using Brackets in APA Style References

Timothy McAdoo by Timothy McAdoo

This post is part of an ongoing series about how references work. Check out an introduction to the generic APA Style reference and the posts on the author or “who” element, the date or “when” element, the title or “what” element, and the source information or “where” element. An upcoming post will give advice on mixing and matching elements of example references.

Glancing through the references examples on pages 193–215 of the APA Publication Manual, you may notice that some references include information in brackets. These brackets always appear immediately following the title element (and any of its parenthetical information). Understanding this element of an APA Style reference can give you great flexibility when creating references. 

As indicated on page 186, “nonroutine” information can be included in brackets. Fourteen of the most common notations are included on that page (including “Audio podcast,” “Data file,” “Computer software,” and others). But these are not the only possible notations.  Any information that is “important for identification and retrieval” may be included in brackets. 

This is useful when you need to clarify the type of source. For example, although Example 50 (p. 210) shows “[Audio podcast]” after the title element, “[Video podcast]” is another possibility. Likewise, in Example 53 (“Map retrieved online”) brackets are included to clarify that the title element refers to a “[Demographic map].” 

Brackets can also be used to indicate that the title element refers to more than one thing, as in Example 57, where “Eyelink II” refers to both the “[Apparatus and software].” 

In short, if you’re referencing an unusual item, consider using brackets to clarify. 

What’s the most unusual item you’ve ever included in an APA Style reference list?

July 30, 2009

On Two Spaces Following a Period

Sw4 by Sarah Wiederkehr

Do you remember dot matrix printers? These early generation printers were affordable for home use, but widely spaced pixels made their output tough to read. When run on the draft setting, dot matrix printers were intoxicatingly zippy. To print a document with a more humane, higher density output, however, the term-paper writer was forced to watch the ink head take three passes at each line of type—a steep (and excruciating) investment in time.

As I progressed through my college career, more and more professors declared that they would no longer accept work produced on dot matrix printers. In my heart of hearts, I could not blame them. I can only imagine what a weekend of slogging through hundreds of pages of weakly printed copy would have done to the eyes of those professors.

The new edition of the Publication Manual recommends that authors include two spaces after each period in draft manuscripts. For many readers, especially those tasked with reading stacks of term papers or reviewing manuscripts submitted for publication, this new recommendation will help ease their reading by breaking up the text into manageable, more easily recognizable chunks.

Although the usual convention for published works remains one space after each period, and indeed the decision regarding whether to include one space or two rests, in the end, with the publication designer, APA thinks the added space makes sense for draft manuscripts in light of those manuscript readers who might benefit from a brief but refreshing pause.

As I learned in college, it is never a bad idea to consider the eyes of the person reviewing your work.

July 23, 2009

To Slash/Not to Slash--That Is the Question/Quandary

“Punctuation is to make clear the thought expressed.” So say the authors of the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual (p. 267), and they’re right, of course.  This sentiment explains some editors’ reservations about the slash (also called a solidus, slant, diagonal, virigule, forward slash, front slash, oblique stroke, or shill). In my years of editing, I’ve noticed that writers like the slash, and use it, but editors tend to, if not detest it, at least eschew it (the MLA Style Manual, for example, declares “the slash, or diagonal, is rarely necessary in formal prose”). Why? Ambiguity. Merriam-Webster’s entry on the slash illustrates perfectly the symbol’s foggy identity, defining it as “and” and “or” and “and or.”

Style, like all well-meaning advice, is sometimes a matter of urgency (e.g., “I would suggest you exit this burning house”) but more often is a matter of taste and discretion. So the sixth edition of the APA Publication Manual cautions readers not “to use a slash when a phrase would be clearer.” Or? And? “X, Y, or both?” APA Style also calls for the use of a hyphen or short dash for simple comparisons. Still, there are times when “and/or” hits the mark best, and this blogger, for one, thinks it’s a serviceable enough construction. Moreover, “and/or” is an entry in the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Other sources echo APA’s cautions. Weighing in on “expressions of equivalence or duality,” the American Medical Association (AMA) allows a forward slash (actually, AMA likes the term virigule) to signify “and” but urges rewording around the virigule “in the likelihood of ambiguity” (p. 353). In Copyediting: A Practical Guide (1990), Judd noted that the slash is used to indicate options (e.g., when you’re going to a party/fete/gala) but reserved its principal use for mathematical copy. The Modern Language Association (MLA) likes the slash for “two terms paired as opposites/alternatives and used together as a noun.” The Chicago Manual of Style seems more tolerant of the slash, noting without commentary that it can be used as shorthand for “or” or “and.” (I’m disappointed that the venerable Words Into Type doesn’t address the slash.)

In sum, the shifty/flexible nature of the slash (and the lack of consensus on its use) reinforces the notion that effective writing and/or editing is always a matter of thinking through the small details.


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