1

How would you use the semicolon in the following sentence?

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc., Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Toy Story, but never got noticed for the work he did.

Please don't suggest other punctuation, or reworking the sentence. I just want to know how to use semicolons here. It's just an example. Would this be correct?

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story, but never got noticed for the work he did.

  • 3
    I would use the semicolon exactly like that, though I would avoid the awkward-looking comma after Toy Story. I would also italicise the titles as required by most writing and style guides. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 25 '17 at 21:23
  • 1
    What JBJ said, but I would add a colon after "including". – MetaEd Apr 25 '17 at 21:24
  • The colon is very old-fashioned here. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 '17 at 23:08
2

Your handling of the semicolons within the series is fine (although The Chicago Manual of Style does recommend that you italicize the movie titles): you've established the stronger punctuation mark (the semicolon) as the primary mark to define the entries in the series, which leaves the commas free to punctuate the titles internally (which they would have to do in any case because they appear in the midst of movie titles and hence are part of one or another proper name).

But your sentence doesn't end at the end of the series—and that's a problem, because now you are tempted to introduce a comma to operate at a higher level than the one at which semicolons in the list were operating. It's not that you can't use a comma after Toy Story and be understood; it's that you are using the comma at a hierarchical level that is superior to the semicolons' level.

If we break down the structure of the sentence as originally punctuated, we find the primary division in the sentence at the end of Toy Story. The first part consists of

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc., Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Toy Story

and the second part consists of

but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

In dealing with the internal hierarchy of punctuation in the first part of the sentence, you quite reasonably adopted this punctuation:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story

Meanwhile the second part of the sentence requires no punctuation at all (except the end point):

but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

So the question is, how should you punctuate after Toy Story at the end of the first part of the sentence if you want to maintain the hierarchical order of commas and semicolons you established in the first part? To my mind you have several options if you accept that commas and semicolons are off-limits. (Not everyone will accept this, because not everyone considers a hierarchical approach to punctuation within a sentence to be worth a fig. But I think it is quite figworthy.)

The first option is to adopt a punctuation mark stronger than a comma or semicolon to hold the single sentence together. One stronger mark is the colon, but it's not appealing when introduced into a sentence after a series of semicolons, perhaps because readers are so accustomed to seeing colons appear before semicolons in constructions such as "There are three possible explanations: blah blah; blah blah blah; and blah blah blah blah." That leaves the em dash (—), which doesn't look great when swapped in as a straight-up one-for-onereplacement for the comma after Toy Story:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story—but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

but works pretty well if you pair it with another em-dash (inserted after films) to break out the list of movie names as a kind of parenthetical statement:

He had worked on a number of films—including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story—but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

And of course, if you can use em-dashes to set off a parenthetical, you can use parentheses to do the same thing:

He had worked on a number of films (including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story) but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

A simpler and more decisive approach would be to end the first part of the sentence with a period and present the second part as a new self-contained sentence:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story. But he never got noticed for the work he did.

The resulting presentation has a journalistically clipped feeling to it, which some people admire and others detest.

But you have yet another option that is specific to the example you give. Because all of the commas in the commas-and-semicolons version of the first part of the sentence occur within movie titles, all of them should be italicized along with the rest of the title in which each appears. Consequently, you have the option of using regular roman (that is, nonitalic) commas for the series commas and italic commas for the film name commas:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc., Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Toy Story

The difference between italic commas and regular roman commas varies from font to font—and I must say that it's pretty subtle in the font that English, Language & Usage uses—but it's a real distinction, and you could use it as a rationale for punctuating the interior of the single sentence with commas:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc., Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and Toy Story, but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

Here the commas after films and after Toy Story set off the parenthetical expression, the regular roman commas within that parenthetical expression demarcate the end of each of the first two series entries, and the italic commas repeat internal punctuation within the movie titles.

If it were my sentence, I would either use the em-dash breakout approach:

He had worked on a number of films—including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story—but [he] never got noticed for the work he did.

or the two-sentence approach:

He had worked on a number of films, including Monsters, Inc.; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; and Toy Story. But he never got noticed for the work he did.

But you have a number of options for punctuating the sentence so as to convey the hierarchical relationship of the sentence's parts—and many more ways of punctuating it in ways that ignore hierarchical considerations.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.