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When to Use Commas, Colons, Semicolons, and Dashes

Comma, Colon, Semicolon, Dash

Which Punctuation Mark Should I Use?

Knowing which punctuation to apply within sentences can be confusing. But rules are important and made to be followed, especially in academic writing. Putting a comma between two independent clauses will confuse your readers and make your work frustrating to read. On the other hand, a well-placed semi-colon can add nuance and subtlety to any kind of writing. Keep the following rules in mind when choosing to use a comma (,), colon (:), semicolon (;), or dash (—).

When to Use a Comma

Commas are the most frequently used (and abused) punctuation mark in most kinds of writing. The reason for this is that they have so many uses and so many rules—it can be hard to keep track of them all. Let’s take a look at just a few of the comma’s crucial functions and discuss when to choose a comma over another similar punctuation mark.

To list items or short phrases:

I bought bread, cheeseand pickles at the grocery store.

To separate long independent clauses when conjunctions connect them:

Astronomers have known about the positions of stars for centuries, but they didn’t understand that the earth revolves around the sun.

After an introductory phrase:

In preparation for the next convention, the representatives studied up on the most important issues.

To separate a parenthetical phrase or interrupter:

All doctors, if they care about their patients, are concerned with good office hygiene.

Common Comma Mistakes

Comma splice. Do NOT use a comma to divide two independent clauses without a conjunction.

IncorrectThousands of protesters showed up on the streetsthey were shouting and carrying large posters.

CorrectThousands of protesters showed up on the streets; they were shouting and carrying large posters.

Combining lengthy phrases. Using commas with compound sentences or to separate clauses with other commas can cause confusion. Use a semicolon.

IncorrectSome useful subjects are English, which is an international language, math, which is used in all domains of sciences and social sciencesand philosophywhich underpins many other areas of study.

CorrectSome useful subjects are English, which is an international language; math, which is used in all sciences and social sciences; and philosophy, which underpins many other areas of study.

When to Use a Colon

A colon is used to make lists and tell the reader, “This is what I mean.” The colon should not be used often in most kinds of writing unless there are extensive lists involved. The rules of the colon are strict but fairly easy to remember.

To introduce an item or series of items:

Humans use five major senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

To separate independent clauses when the second clause/sentence illustrates, explains, paraphrases, or expands on the first:

Martha realized that her worst fear was coming true: her son was being sent to war.

(*The information after the colon explains Martha’s fear in the form of an independent clause.)

To follow the salutation in a business letter or more formal letter:

To the Central Valley Committee Chairman:

More Tips For Using Colons

Do not capitalize the first word after the colon unless it is a proper noun, is part of a quote, or is the first in a series of sentences:

Incorrect: I have three desiresTo eat, sleep, and work.

CorrectI have three desires: to eat, sleep, and work.

When a quotation contains multiple sentences, many writers prefer to introduce it with a colon rather than a comma:

In Chapter 3, the author explains his theory“Dogs have dreams, but they don’t dream as humans do. Their dreams reflect a primal desire for pleasure, whereas humans are preoccupied with the ego and self-image. This is equally true in wakefulness and sleep.”

A complete sentence after the colon is not necessary—a word or phrase is fine.

There is one mantra that can sum up our position towards climate change: urgent action.

Common Colon Mistakes

Separating two clauses that have equal rank or unrelated information:

IncorrectSarah and her friends loved spending time on the mountain: nature always held a special meaning for them.

CorrectSarah and her friends loved spending time on the mountainnature always held a special meaning for them.

(*Use a period if the clauses are not at all related. Use a semi-colon if the information in the second clause is somewhat related but does not illustrate, explain, or paraphrase the first clause.)

Overusing the colon:

The colon is a powerful punctuation mark and should be used sparingly. Think of it as a stop sign that calls readers’ attention and says, “Hey! Pay attention to this. This is important.” If there are too many stop signs on a street, you won’t be able to drive very smoothly or quickly. This is the same effect colons can have upon readers.

Because colons are so attention-grabbing, they can clearly indicate which information is important. For this reason, many authors use colons to introduce their main argument or supporting evidence.

When to Use a Semicolon

A semicolon is used to separate two ideas (two independent clauses) that are closely related. They can also be used when listing complex ideas or phrases that use commas within them.  Essentially, a semicolon is like a comma with more meaning or a colon with more flexibility.

To join two or more ideas (parts) in a sentence when their ideas are given equal position or rank:

The universe has always called to human beings; there could be no more final frontier than space.

To join two independent clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases:

Sam thought David was inviting him to the picnic to enjoy a nice day outas it turned out, David was planning a surprise birthday party.

To present items in a list or series if there are commas within the items, or if the items are relatively long and complex:

Our family members came all the way from Denver, ColoradoRochester, Minnesotaand even Paris, France.

To connect independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (if the clauses are already punctuated with commas) or if they are lengthy.

My main research objective is to isolate the cause of the disease, as well as to contribute to the existing literaturefor this will bring an end to starvation across the continent, create new study designs related to epidemiology, and change the very paradigm of my research field.

Using a Semicolon Instead of a Comma

IncorrectThe specimens were treated properlyhowever, they were not stored properly.

CorrectThe specimens were treated properlyhowever, they were not stored properly.

*The conjunctive adverb “however” shows a connection between the two independent clauses; do not use a comma to connect two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, etc.).

IncorrectThe sun is wonderful: it produces light, which plants need to surviveit gives us warmth, which is useful for most lifeand it makes a sad day happier, which is obviously a positive trait!

CorrectThe sun is wonderful: it produces light, which plants need to surviveit gives us warmth, which is useful for most lifeand it makes a sad day happier, which is obviously a positive trait!

*Using only commas, it is unclear what items are being listed exactly. Semicolons help divide listed items that each contain commas.

When to Use a Dash (or Dashes)

The dash (or, more specifically, the “em dash”) is perhaps the most versatile of the punctuation marks. However, like the semicolon, it is underutilized in most kinds of writing. It can function like a comma, parentheses, or colon, but creating subtly different effects in each case.

Use Dashes in Place of a Comma

Em dashes can be used in pairs to replaced commas when writing a parenthetical or interruptive phrase. The dashes have a slightly more emphatic feel, making the reader focus on this information that is set inside the special marks.

Parenthetical phrase with commas:

And sowhen the baby was born in Junenearly two months prematurethe parents were happy but quite nervousand they still had to buy all of the baby supplies.

Parenthetical phrase with dashes:

And so, when the baby was born in Junenearly two months prematurethe parents were happy but quite nervous, and they still had to buy all of the baby supplies.

(*The dashes put emphasis on the fact that the baby was premature, showing that it is an important detail in this sentence.)

Use Dashes in Place of Parentheses

Put a pair of dashes in the same position that you would put parentheses. Since they are less formal, fewer dashes than parentheses are found in academic writing. However, they do cause more of an obvious interruption and therefore more emphasis. They can also be used as a sort of “meta” parentheses when the content between the dashes already contains parentheses.

When dashes replace parentheses, the surrounded punctuation is omitted:

ParenthesesAfter taking all of his final exams (including seven essays and three multiple choice tests), David just wanted to sleep.

DashesAfter taking all of his final examsincluding seven essays and three multiple choice testsDavid just wanted to sleep.

*The dashes are more visible and therefore interrupt the flow of the sentence a bit more and draw attention to the content.

When used instead of parentheses at the end of a sentence, only a single dash is used.

ParenthesesThat coffee shop offers a selection of exotic gourmet coffee (or at least that is how they describe it).

Single dashThat coffee shop offers a selection of exotic gourmet coffeeor at least that is how they describe it.

*The dash seems to work especially well when placed at the end of a sentence—it extends the sentence like an addendum.

Use a Dash in Place of a Colon

Use an em dash instead of a colon when you want to emphasize the conclusion of your sentence without giving it all of the connotations that a colon brings. A dash can add “extra” information and is more flexible in this way. It is also less formal than a colon.

Colon: The executives finally decided what they would do with the companysell it at a loss.

Single DashThe executives finally decided what they would do with the companysell it at a loss.

ColonLet’s go where we went last yearDisneyland!

Single DashLet’s go where we went last yearDisneyland!

*Using the dash in this way conveys a sense of anticipation (or of inevitability) and can add an almost editorial feel to the writing.

Choose Punctuation with Context and Audience in Mind

As with any technical decisions regarding writing, when choosing which punctuation marks to use and apply consistently, it is a good idea to consider your audience and the context of your work. For instance, researchers looking to publish in journals should read articles from the journals they are targeting to see which punctuation marks are used by most authors in that journal. The same rule applies to any newspaper, magazine, or periodical for which your writing is intended.

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Your Paper, Your Way: All You Need to Know!

What is Your Paper, Your Way?

The concept of Your Paper, Your Way1 (hereinafter YPYW) was proposedby Sir Kelvin Davies, PhD, DSc, Editor-in-Chief of Free Radical Biology & Medicine in 2011 and it made its way to all Elsevier journals in June 2013. It is an attempt to simplify the publication process and is marketed with the intent of making the process more “author friendly.” It does so by greatly relaxing the formatting requirements, enabling greater focus on only the content while evaluating a submitted paper. The first draft needs to meet no strict formatting requirements, enabling even authors to primarily focus on the content. Although it does greatly succeed in that intent, there is a lot more to it than the altruistic intent of making things easier for the authors, as you will find out when you read on.

What does Your Paper, Your Way change in the field of publication?

Like a singer should not have to know how to dance, an author should not need to be proficient in technical skills of MS Word. Research papers have greatly been about two things until YPYW—how good the content is and how “publication-ready” does the manuscript appear. Although nothing seems wrong about this at the outset, a disproportionate focus on the latter can very well prevent good research from being accepted. YPYW throws the latter out of a figurative window and brings the former at the center (and everywhere else, as it is the only thing that matters for first evaluation). As YPYW allows for the submission of an entire manuscript in a single *.docx or *.pdf file, the process is more convenient compared to many journals that require the Abstract, the title page, and the artwork separately submitted. Besides this, since the manuscript is now evaluated for fewer criteria, the publication process is much faster. Whether the paper is accepted or rejected, the authors know of the verdict much sooner than they would with the conventional process.

How does Your Paper, Your Way benefit authors?

As mentioned above, researchers should be evaluated for academic proficiency and should not feel “compelled” to learn something they do not have to know. According to Elsevier, “92% of authors surveyed found YPYW easy or extremely easy, compared to 61% of authors who used the traditional process.” With the initial submission being evaluated ONLY based on the content quality in YPYW, this levels the playing field for researchers having inadequate proficiency with using MS Office tools. MedicalWriterslists “incorrect formatting” as one of the top five reasons for manuscript rejection. With YPYW, this reason is greatly neutralized, albeit not completely.

How does Your Paper, Your Way benefit the journal?

Although YPYW is greatly marketed as an “author-focused” initiative, which it is in the most part, there is more to the story. What are the reasons why more journals, even many non-Elsevier journals, are increasingly adopting this style? I assure you it is not pure altruism on the part of the journal. Below, I briefly describe how YPYW benefits the journals.

  • More submissions: Let’s work with the established fact that most journals charge a hefty sum as a submission fee. Now, authors who have limited access to or knowledge of using MS Word for complicated formatting requirements are expected to make sure that their lack of technical proficiency is not a factor in manuscript rejection. There are parts of the world where the submission fee is even greater than the average monthly wage of a scientist, and research funding is more or less absent, inadequate, or indefinitely delayed; in such cases, if the authors are spending their own money for submission, it makes probabilistic sense for them to select a journal which does not have their weakness—improper formatting—as a criteria for rejection. This makes many authors gravitate toward YPYW journals, consequently increasing submissions to such journals and making the YPYW concept a real money maker but not for wrong reasons.
  • One review – and that’s it. In journals with strict formatting requirements, the reviewers often have to go through a single paper multiple times because of returns and revision requests to meet the formatting requirements. For a journal, this is somewhat “redundant” work done by an employee as there is generally no monetary gain associated with reviewing the returned manuscripts; they would rather have their reviewers look at fresh manuscripts which actually bring money to the journal. This increases the number of fresh manuscripts reviewed over any given period of time, thus making more money for the journal.
  • The two points above: It is important to talk of them together as they make YPYW seem like a sheer “common sense-oriented” decision, business-wise that is. More incoming papers and minimal time spent on a non-money-making process clearly scream how much business is at the center of research in current times. I am not complaining though as the win of YPYW does not seem to be any author’s loss to me.

What can go wrong for authors while submitting to Your Paper, Your Way journals?

As an academic editor, I am generally elated when I get a paper for editing that is being sent to a YPYW journal. This is because I know that I would have to spare “little” time for formatting. I say “little” but not “no” for a huge reason. Although there are no strict guidelines that a paper needs to be in agreement with, it has to still be what I can best describe as a “disciplined effort.” There should be internal consistency in the formatting aspects, be it in-text references, reference list, line spacing, pagination, etc. Using mixed styles, e.g., inconsistent number of author names before using “et al” in the reference list, inconsistent/mixed use of “&” vs. “and” in two-author papers in the end list and/or in-text references, and inconsistent/mixed use of square brackets, parenthesis, and superscripts to depict in-text references for Vancouver style adherence are ALL discouraged. Although there is no template to follow for these aspects, internal consistency is a must. Thus, despite the journal supporting YPYW, authors should not send in a “shabby” paper by any measure.

What do the reviewers think about Your Paper, Your Way?

Although we have established that YPYW brings great changes from the journal and author perspectives, reviewers are the least affected [check “Feedback from reviewers” section]4 by this change. However, it has to be kept in mind that the people reviewing your papers after your journal started supporting YPYW are the same as those who did it before. Thus, they are used to seeing near-perfect papers from a formatting point of view (all Times New Roman or Arial, double-spaced, 12 pt. font), even at the first submission many a times. Thus, as they have been doing this for years, they may feel “inconvenienced” when a paper comes to them which appears different somehow (10 pt. single-spaced, let’s say). Although it is not likely to influence their overall objective verdict of the paper, it is considered wise if the authors send in a properly presented manuscript for the review. My advice to the authors, always use the above mentioned combination in underline and italics; it is still widely the gold standard of how a paper is “expected” to look like.

My two cents on Your Paper, Your Way

So, if given a choice between a YPYW and a non-YPYW journal, should an author preferably submit a well-prepared manuscript to YPYW? The answer is that this is NOT a deciding factor for choosing a journal. If your manuscript is well-prepared, then find the best journal for it based on the impact factor, visibility, how often it publishes content related to your topic, etc. These are always the priority factors to consider. If your paper is not prepared well in terms of formatting, you may go for a YPYW journal if it meets the abovementioned criteria; if you cannot find such a journal, seek professional editing and send it to a journal that best showcases your work to the world.

Although there has been a lot of debate on how good or not YPYW is for the academia, I am personally inclined in its favor. Because although this changes a lot for the industry, it does not bring a compromise to how robust the content evaluation process should be and it does not force the reviewers to accept more articles for business benefit. The academic decision-making factors have been left untouched and robust and the decision makers are the same as before, and among all the things Elsevier has changed, for me, the beauty of YPYW lies in what they chose to keep intact, which is the “no-compromise” approach on the quality of research accepted.

References

  1. Your paper your way [Internet]. Elsevier.com. 2018 [cited 1 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.elsevier.com/en-in/authors/journal-authors/your-paper-your-way
  2. Davies K. [Internet]. Elsevierscitech.com. 2018 [cited 1 November 2018]. Available from: http://www.elsevierscitech.com/dronsite/FRB_10666_1.pdf
  3. Waaga F. The top 5 reasons manuscripts get rejected – and how you can prevent them » Medicalwriters.com [Internet]. Medicalwriters.com. 2018 [cited 1 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.medicalwriters.com/rejected-manuscript-five-top-reasons-why-it-happened-and-advice-how-to-prevent-this/
  4. Fennell C, Gill D. Your Paper, Your Way – now available to all journals [Internet]. Elsevier.com. 2018 [cited 1 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.elsevier.com/editors-update/story/author-support/your-paper,-your-way-now-available-to-all-journals
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Responding to Reviewer Comments on Your Manuscript: Example from a Climate Science Journal Rebuttal Letter

Handling Comments from Manuscript Reviewers

Becoming a successful researcher in the natural sciences means not only conducting novel and important research, but also responding effectively to the comments of the journal editors and reviewers in an appropriate and proactive manner. Knowing how to respond properly to their comments on your manuscript becomes increasingly important, as such comments can have a tremendous impact on the editor’s decision to ultimately publish your paper. The majority of atmospheric and climate science journals to which I’ve personally submitted have demanded thorough and complete answers to questions specifically about the scope of my work. I learned early on that answering a particular comment with a one-sentence response was not going to cut it. I needed to make sure I understood the questions the reviewer was asking so that I could answer their questions and address their concerns effectively.

At this stage of the submission of your journal, the editor will determine how well and thoroughly you responded to the reviewers’ comments in order for your paper to be worthy of publication. If the editor’s expertise is very closely related to the topic of the paper, the editor will sometimes intervene and suggest whether it is appropriate or not to address the comments of a particular reviewer. If the editor’s expertise falls far from the topic of the paper, they will rely more on the recommendations of the reviewers

This article will (1) help you understand why it’s important to respond properly to such comments; (2) what exactly should be included in a response or rebuttal letter; and (3) how to respond appropriately to reviewers’ comments. We will include an example from an actual comment made by a reviewer during a manuscript submission to a climate science journal.

Why is a Journal Rebuttal Letter Important?

In addition to having many years’ experience submitting manuscripts to journals for publication, I have also been a reviewer for atmospheric and climate science journals since 2008, including such publications as Journal of Geophysical ResearchEnvironmental Research Letters, and Climate Dynamics. Having been on the other side of the “fence,” I have seen firsthand how authors respond to my questions and comments, and so I understand how important it is to address these comments thoroughly. Knowing how to deftly handle a rebuttal letter is one of the most important skills you will need to become a successful researcher.

After you have submitted your manuscript with a cover letter to the editor stating the significance of your work, carefully followed all of the journal’s submission instructions, you can only wait and hope that the editor has initially accepted your work and considered it good enough for a formal review. If you pass this stage and the paper has not been flat out rejected, a rebuttal letter will be attached to the review of your paper. Hopefully, the aim of your paper matches closely to that of the selected target journal and your paper has enough merit not to be initially rejected.

What Should be Included in a Rebuttal Letter?

Much of the time, especially if you are new to research, you will be faced with such a rebuttal letter from the editor that can include many comments from up to three or four reviewers. How you respond to this letter determines whether or not the editor accepts or declines your manuscript. Below is the information that should be included in the rebuttal letter for a continued and successful review of your manuscript:

Essential Information to Include:

  • Title of the manuscript
  • All authors of the manuscript
  • A brief “thank you” note addressed to the editor and reviewers stating your gratitude for the review.
  • Write responses to the comments in separate sections according to the first reviewer, second reviewer, and so forth.
  • Distinguish the reviewers’ comments from your own responses by using either bold or italicizedversus normal text or using different fonts for specific sections.
  • Be sure to answer each and every comment made by the reviewers.

Language Specifics:

  • Use formal language in all responses to the reviewers’ comments.Be sure to set the right tone in your rebuttal letter. Responding with anger or outward criticism of the reviewer’s comments certainly won’t win you any favors with the journal.
  • Avoid taking a strong or argumentative tone if you happen to disagree on any issues. Instead, state that the reviewer has raised a good point and try to argue in a more positive tone why you do not agree, providing as many facts as possible to support your argument.
  • If you do not agree with a reviewer when they recommend that another methodology should be used, for example, state clearly why you think the original one is better and provide references if possible.
  • Though there is not a limit in the word length of your responses to the reviewers, do try to keep them as concise as possible.

Example of Editor Comment and Response from a Climate Science Journal

In my fourteen years of submitting manuscripts to journals, including, I’ve had to answer hundreds of questions from editors and reviewers. This includes everything from comments pointing out minor errors such as leaving out the year in a citation, to questions about the appropriateness of methodology. On one occasion, I attempted to convince the editor that the scientific method I applied was the one most appropriate for testing the research hypothesis.

Below is an actual example of a comment my co-authors and I received from one reviewer submitting our paper to a geophysical research journal. Pay close attention to the structure of the response of the reviewer’s comment considering the font, line spacing, tone, and how we have addressed the reviewer’s main concerns. We did not fully agree with the desired requests of the reviewer, but we clearly stated our reasons along with relevant arguments and references. We also did a quick check to give further confidence to our findings. Notice as well that we placed the original reviewer’s comment in italics and our response in regular text for clarity.

Reviewer’s Comment

Dimming and brightening: I found this part less convincing than the rest of the paper. The comparison of the radiation trends to the satellite products is surprising, given that they generally use non-time-varying aerosols, whereas aerosols are likely to explain the dimming/brightening mechanism. The authors should instead use ground-based measurements, such as stations from the BSRN and GEBA networks, that have been recently homogenized (Sanchez-Lorenzo et al., 2013).

Our Response Letter to the Reviewer

As explained in section 2.2, changes in the AOD through time are implied and its signature in the SRB dataset was seen with the Pinatubo eruption (Stackhouse et al., 2011). The CERES dataset as explained in section 2.3 uses the same method. Thus, this is the reason we use these satellite products and our reason for going in detail in the dimming and brightening section between trends of these datasets. We also wanted to show how useful such satellite products are in these modeling assessments because as we point out in lines 44-49, satellites provide a greater spatial coverage than ground based measurements with better precision than reanalysis data (Qin et al., 2006). As a check however, we have evaluated the available BSRN stations over the common period 2001-2007 for eight different stations in Europe.

Quick Checklist before Submitting

  • Use single spacing between all lines.
  • Stick to Arial or Times New Roman using 12-point font.
  • Do not indent paragraphs.
  • Use double-spacing between paragraphs.
  • Use a spelling and grammar check throughout your whole letter.

Final Considerations and Take-Home Message for Authors

From my many years of experience of answering the comments of editors and reviewers, I will argue that it is very important that you respond to ALL comments made by the reviewers. It is worthwhile to make sure you have left nothing out for any comment, even if it concerns a minor issue. There will be times when you will completely disagree with a reviewer, but it is better to show that you have at least considered their recommendation; and if you still disagree, provide clear reasons why you disagree and provide references. This is critical, as it shows that you are willing to work with them to improve your paper, and at the same time it demonstrates your expertise and knowledge of the literature in that scientific area.

One last thing to check before you submit your rebuttal letter is to make sure you have written a short note to the editor indicating that you have addressed all of the editors’ and reviewers’ concerns and thanking them all for their feedback. If you strongly disagree with the editor or a reviewer on a particular major comment, for example, and one that would require major revision, you can always let the editor know first—but remember to use a softened tone in your writing and argue your point in a way that clearly shows your expertise.

The more you adhere to the advice provided in this article, the greater the likelihood of your paper being published. Writing a successful rebuttal letter is one of the most important steps you will take during your research career. Good luck!

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