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For example,

If Bobby buys a pencil, an eraser, and a pad of paper, then he can write his essay.

To remove the ambiguity in the final comma, my instinct is to write:

If Bobby buys a pencil, an eraser, and a pad of paper; then he can write his essay.

Is this syntactically correct? Is there a preferred convention? Is there a general convention on replacing commas with other marks when they're ambiguous like this?

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I don't see any real ambiguity or any need for the word "then". There are a number of ways of eliminating the awkward dual use of comma. One is to reorder the sentence: "Bobby can write his essay if he buys a pencil, an eraser and a pad of paper." –  RedGrittyBrick Dec 27 '10 at 0:54

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I assume by "ambiguous" you mean that the sentence could be interpreted as either:

If Bobby buys a pencil, (buys) an eraser, and (buys) a pad of paper, then he can write his essay.

Or:

If Bobby buys a pencil, (then buys) an eraser, and (then buys) a pad of paper, then he can write his essay.

But it's actually not ambiguous at all. "Then he..." cannot be interpreted as an item in the list, and since you say "and a pad of paper" instead of "and then a pad of paper", there is no implied sequence in which he must buy the items.

If you're just asking whether there's any need to change a comma to some other punctuation mark when multiple commas with different uses appear in the same sentence, the answer is also, generally speaking, no. The only time you'll see a comma turned to a semicolon in a list is when some of the items contain commas themselves:

He bought a car, which was red; two houses, both blue; and a diamond ring.

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Thanks! I see how it's unambiguous now. It bothers me that there isn't a distinct way to end the condition of a conditional sentence. However, it seems that is only useful when the reader is only looking at structure and not the words and context (which doesn't really make sense anyway). –  Dan King Dec 27 '10 at 1:04

The punctuation before then cannot reasonably be a semi-colon; it could be a comma but even that is not absolutely necessary.

As Jon Purdy notes, you can use a semi-colon to build up a list when (some of) the phrases inside the list themselves contain commas. One of the interesting examples I know of comes from a book that seems to be out of print now: G V Carey's "Mind the Stop".

The original abused full stops:

Queues for the unreserved seats stretched a quarter of a mile away to the local greengrocer's. There were little girls in bathing costumes with pails. Homely women with shopping bags. Young misses of sixteen or seventeen, trying to look aloof and sophisticated. Big boys come to see what all the fuss was about. Fathers with families. One child tightly clutching a stuffed model of Dopey. A good-humoured, patient, expectant audience, ready to try today, and tomorrow, and the day after, until at last they could get past the uniformed Cerberus at the door and see for themselves the film they had heard so much about, the film that the management had the 'happy honour to present'.

Revised:

Queues for the unreserved seats stretched a quarter of a mile away to the local greengrocer's. There were little girls in bathing costumes with pails; homely women with shopping bags; young misses of sixteen or seventeen, trying to look aloof and sophisticated; big boys come to see what all the fuss was about; fathers with families; one child tightly clutching a stuffed model of Dopey -- a good-humoured, patient, expectant audience, ready to try today, and tomorrow, and the day after, until at last they could get past the uniformed Cerberus at the door and see for themselves the film they had heard so much about, the film that the management had the 'happy honour to present'.

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