Thursday, February 24, 2011

Transitional Words Are Not Subordinating Conjunctions

Amy wrote, “I am confused on an issue of grammar, and hope you can straighten me out. When using a word that creates a dependent clause, such as although, however, etc., I have seen conflicting information. One source I found indicated that if you attach the dependent clause to the end of a sentence, you must use a semi-colon, as a comma creates a run on. For example: Many people think protectionism can halt rising prices; however, the opposite is actually true. (A comma here would be considered run-on, but with the semicolon, is it correct?)

If, however, the clause is attached to the front of a sentence, would a comma be sufficient? It seems that a semi-colon would be inappropriate. For example: Although many people think protectionism can halt rising prices, the opposite is actually true. Does it makes a difference if the dependent clause is attached to the front or end of the sentence, as to whether I would use a comma or semi-colon?”

Your examples are correctly written, but there's a bit of confusing crossover going on. Two elements are involved:

(1) Some words, called subordinating conjunctions, signal the beginning of a dependent clause—although, because, if, since, so that, when, where, etc.

(2) Another set of words, transitional words, do not signal a dependent clause; rather, they show the logical connection between adjacent statements—however, furthermore, therefore, first, next, finally, later, meanwhile, etc. In your protectionism example above, no dependent clause is involved. The semicolon joins two independent clauses.

With that in mind, as far as the comma being used with a dependent clause, there's a two-part rule.

(A) When the dependent clause comes BEFORE the independent clause, use a comma:

"After I finish college, I want to be an accountant."

(B) When the dependent clause comes AFTER the independent clause, do not use a comma:

"I want to be an accountant after I finish college."

The semicolon never comes between a dependent clause and its independent clause; that would be an error called a sentence fragment. The semicolon is designed to join two independent clauses. Don’t think of the semicolon as a super comma; think of it as a weak period.

When it comes to transitional words (which may appear either in dependent clauses or independent clauses) there are two rules:

(A) When a transitional word BEGINS a sentence, add a comma right after it:

"Furthermore, your mother is sympathetic to your plight."

“However, if you don’t call her more often, she may turn on you.”

(B) When a transitional word is INSIDE the sentence, use two commas:

"Your mother, furthermore, is sympathetic to your plight."

“If you don’t call her more often, however, she may turn on you.”

Of course, if a transitional word ends a sentence, the second comma would be replaced by the appropriate terminal punctuation.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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