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I feel like something is wrong with the ", notably" part, but I can't explain why! Is the following sentence grammatically correct?

Employees give relatively low scores across a variety of characteristics, notably the quality of the Marketing department's decisions, compensation, and having sufficient people resources.

(My problem with grammar is that it's completely intuitive, and I often can't explain the rules behind why something is wrong.)

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

I agree with RegDwight's comment and disagree with Robusto's (and Martha's).

Here's the thing: the sentence seems to be using the word notably as something of a drop-in replacement for a word like particularly, which would serve to describe the listed items as being more relevant to the point being made than those not listed, without implying that the unlisted items are somehow not notable.

I don't think it's common for notably to be used in this way; and as a result of this attempted coercion of its usage, the sentence sounds awkward to me.

Notably sounds much more natural in a context where it is used to single out one or more items as being the only notable aspect(s) of something. For example:

The President's speech included a large number of recycled talking points without revealing much that audience members had not already heard. Notably he did finally promise to lower taxes by the end of the year.

Here's another way of looking at it: the difference between notably and most notably is essentially the same as the difference between good and best. If I say, "Of the three presentations, the first was good," this suggests that the second and third presentations were not good. On the other hand, if I say, "Of the three presentations, the first was best," there is no such implication. Switching between notably and most notably creates an analogous contrast.

With that in mind, I would almost certainly change notably to something like particularly, especially, or most notably, as RegDwight suggested. This way the sentence could be interpreted as emphasizing the listed points without conveying the idea that the characteristics not mentioned are unimportant.

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If you're calling out only some items, they're notable and the others are not. (This doesn't mean the others are unimportant or insignificant, just not notable.) I don't see why one should wish to say that everything is notable (sounds like some symptom of postmodernist woo): if all are notable, why aren't you mentioning them? The word "notable" already includes the sense of being relatively more significant than the others; there's no need to say that some are "more notable" than others. It's not the same as "good" v/s "best", because the adverb "notably" is relative. – ShreevatsaR Dec 8 '10 at 20:28

The only thing I would change in the original sentence is the order or wording of the comma-separated list itself; when I first read it, I thought the Marketing Department was at fault for all three issues. If the items are supposed to be in that particular order as the top 3 results, some extra specifiers might be helpful to eliminate the ambiguous structure: ... notably the quality of the Marketing department's decisions, the level of compensation, and the availability of sufficient people resources.

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Bingo! Give the man a gold star! I knew something was bugging me about this sentence, and it wasn't using "notably" as a synonym for "particularly". – Marthaª Dec 8 '10 at 21:00

The sentence you quoted looks fine to me, but for what it's worth, here's another way to punctuate the sentence without changing any of the words.

Employees give relatively low scores across a variety of characteristics: notably, the quality of the Marketing department's decisions, compensation, and having sufficient people resources.

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This is what I wanted to change it to, but I didn't want to be changing someone else's work when what they had was perfectly correct. I'm interpreting your answer to mean that the original sentence was correct, but that there are alternative ways to punctuate it. If that's the case, I don't want to change it just because it doesn't seem right to me. – Kam6761 Dec 8 '10 at 17:58
I feel a bit diffident about doing this, but I'm going to downvote and add my own answer! Imho, you're almost right; I just want to see if I can earn a Necromancer badge! – FumbleFingers Mar 18 '12 at 2:33

Punctuation dictates the flow of your sentence, therefore if you feel that the person reading it should take a short breath at that point, then so be it. If it's really bothering you, take the sentence apart and try to reword it differently.

Personally I find it fits perfectly, both reading it in my head and reading aloud.

DISCLAIMER: Born and lived first 22 years in the U.S.

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I think it's dangerous advice to link punctuation to breathing pauses. Yes, often punctuation indicates a pause in pronunciation, but not every pause should have punctuation. – Marthaª Dec 8 '10 at 17:47

I would probably change the sentence to something like:

Employees give relatively low scores across a variety of characteristics, specifically: their compensation, the quality of the Marketing department's decisions, and having sufficient people and resources to do their jobs.

The middle part still sticks out a bit. Perhaps change it to something more immediately relevant to the employees, or explain why it's as immediate as the other two items in this list?

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I think "people resources" is some marketing-speak, and doesn't mean the same thing as "people and resources". It probably just means "people". – ShreevatsaR Dec 8 '10 at 17:50

The sentence as quoted is almost okay to me, but I feel it's slightly underpunctuated. Granted, there are only three "notable" characteristics - but they're quite complex, so I think it's reasonable to use a semicolon to alert the reader that he needs to "take a breath" before reading on. In this context I feel the comma is insufficient.

Once the semicolon has been added, it's debatable whether there's any need for a comma after the word notably, but on balance I think it's a useful aid to clarity...

Employees give relatively low scores across a variety of characteristics; notably, the quality of the Marketing department's decisions, compensation, and having sufficient people resources.

Note - this answer is very similar to @ShreevatsaR's, the differences are I think the original isn't quite "fine", and I think a colon here is incorrect, regardless of whether a comma follows notably.

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