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I read this on a news website:

'Mr Osbourne wants a golden age in British politics, something that is sorely missed'.

Would a semi-colon, a colon or a dash not be much less clunky?

  • Google doesn't find this phrase on a news website, even with the correct spelling of Osborne. Where did you find it? If you know the comma is correct, why do you think it should be replaced by something else (which is, rather by definition, not likely to be correct)? – Andrew Leach Jan 13 '16 at 20:34
  • FWIW... I remember something from my classes in school that were along the lines of using a semi-colon in this scenario because the second part of the sentence can stand on it's own and has the same subject as the first part.... but beyond that, I don't know the rules. (and I'm iffy on my recollection of school lessons) – MegaMark Jan 13 '16 at 20:36
  • That's rather the point. The second part can't stand on its own. It has no main verb. – Andrew Leach Jan 13 '16 at 20:40
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    It has no main verb. "Something that is surely missed" is a noun phrase which can act as a subject or object. Divorcing it from "golden age" (for example, with a semi-colon, which might just as well be a full-stop) makes it a fragment which cannot stand alone. – Andrew Leach Jan 13 '16 at 20:43
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    @JEL, "Something that is sorely missed." This is not a sentence. It may be used in paperback novels all the time, but this construction is not grammatically correct. In that phrase, you have a noun ("something") followed by its modifiers ("that is sorely missed"). chompchomp.com/terms/nounphrase.htm – Tim Ward Jan 13 '16 at 20:53
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Punctuation is a matter of style, so the comma isn't so much right or wrong as it is either in accordance with your manual of style or not. These manuals, which can differ in their recommendations, do not use "clunkiness" as a measure of punctuation's effectiveness. They strive to give rules for using the marks that will reliably enforce the proper parsing of text. I use the Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends that appositives like yours be set off by commas. An appositive is a renaming, here the renaming of a "golden age" as "something sorely missed."

A semicolon serves to separate independent clauses that are unjoined by a conjunction, and a colon serves to separate a list after the word following or a supporting or conclusory example. Neither of those is apt.

An em-dash can set off an aside, and if that's what the part after the comma is intended to do, i.e., to provide auxiliary commentary on the preceding part of the sentence, then such a dash would be appropriate.

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  • Mr Osbourne wants a golden age in British politics,
    something that is sorely missed
    .

comes from

  • Mr Osbourne wants a golden age in British politics,
    which is something that is sorely missed
    .

by means of Whiz-Deletion, which deletes unnecessary Wh- is strings at the beginning of a relative clause (in this case, a non-restrictive relative clause), thereby -- in this case -- forming an appositive noun phrase, from the predicate noun phrase something that is sorely missed.

The comma is correct because non-restrictive relative clauses, and their reduced offspring,
must be separated in speech by comma intonation contours, and in writing by commas.

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To answer your question, and supposing the context determines 'correctness': what you quoted came from a "news website". In that context (journalese), any of the comma, semi-colon, colon or dash might be used, and would be acceptable (barring an editor using a prescriptive grammar, or the required use of a style guide such as the AP Stylebook). In addition, you stipulated you knew the comma was "correct".

Yet you asked,

Would a semi-colon, a colon or a dash not be much less clunky?

No, they would not. Of those, the comma has the least clunk, being the lightest of them visually, as well as the lightest in terms of the conventional separation of 'thoughts' expressed in writing. Of those options (and with the addition of the period, point, full stop), the comma suggests the least separation of the thoughts expressed.

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