What punctuation should I use here?

Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on: her baby, Pearl; and her sewing.

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  • Depends on whether the Baby's name is Pearl or not, and whether Hester is a female or not. – curious-proofreader Sep 5 '17 at 0:31
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    @curious-proofreader, what does Hester being female have to do with the grammar of this sentence? – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 0:39

Because this is ambiguous in writing — albeit not in speech due to intonation:

  • ?Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on her baby, Pearl, and her sewing.

You should therefore resolve your Oxford-comma conundrum this way:

  • Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on her baby, Pearl, and on her sewing.

Notice how I’ve repeated your preposition instead of risking confusion in how it distributes?

The moral of our story is that one tiny word, deftly added, is better at clearing up theoretical confusion than silent punctuation is.


1) The colon is not needed.

A colon should be used when you're signaling that you're about to elaborate on something or about to write a long list of things. For example, this sentence needs a colon:

Hester needs to focus on the following: her baby Pearl and her sewing.

In your sentence, however, "her baby" is the object of the verb "to focus", so there should be no colon between them.

2) There should be no semicolon.

Semicolons are used to signal a longer pause in a sentence, or between two separate sentences if the writer feels like combining them into one for stylistic reasons. For example, this sentence needs a semicolon:

Hester needs to be more grateful; she needs to focus on her baby Pearl and her sewing.

3) The need for commas would depend.

It depends on whether "her baby" and "Pearl" are the same person or not. If they are the same person, skipping the comma would be best for the sake of clarity:

Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on her baby Pearl and her sewing.

It could be argued that "Pearl" should be offset by commas because it is a parenthetical element. However, I think that this is not strictly necessary in this case, and the sentence is more clear without the commas.

What if they are two separate people? (Not likely if this is about The Scarlet Letter, but I'll explain just for the sake of being thorough.) In that case it becomes a list of 3 things, and the commas are required. And to ensure that there is no confusion, I would also move the items around to make it clear that Pearl and the baby are two different people:

Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on her sewing, her baby, and Pearl.

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    RE. the semicolon: If Pearl was the baby, the semicolon would distinguish an apposition from a three-item list. – smatterer Sep 5 '17 at 1:05
  • @smatterer, I think what you mentioned (using a semicolon to separate items in a list that already has commas) applies to lists that follow a colon. But the colon use in this sentence was not appropriate in the first place. Basically, the sentence is just not complex enough to need any of that punctuation. – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 1:59
  • The rearranging the you suggest at the end would also be helpful in the case where Pearl is the baby: "Hester needs to be more grateful and focus on her sewing and her baby, Pearl." – Dan Henderson Sep 5 '17 at 4:19
  • @DanHenderson, a very good point, thanks for the comment. I tried to avoid re-arranging as much as possible because that wasn't the OP's question, per se. – filistinist Sep 5 '17 at 4:30

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