The Grammar Factor – serial commas, apostrophes in place names

June 2012

Readers’ questions

Comma splice

Question: What is a comma splice?

Answer: A comma splice, sometimes known as a comma error, is when you use a comma, instead of a semicolon, conjunction or full stop, between two independent clauses.

The garden is beautiful, it has lots of flowering plants.

That sentence would be more correct as any of the following.

The garden is beautiful; it has lots of flowering plants.
The garden is beautiful because it has lots of flowering plants.
The garden is beautiful. It has lots of flowering plants.

Apostrophes in place names

Question: Why don’t place names have apostrophes?

Answer: The omission of apostrophes in geographical names is becoming standard in many English-speaking countries, including Australia and the United States. Practice in the United Kingdom and Canada is not so uniform.

The rationale appears to be that the people that places are named after don’t own them; that omitting the apostrophe makes the names easier to write or type; and for consistency in databases.

Read guidelines for Australian usage at:

Hyphens – short list, short-list, shortlist

Question: The Macquarie Dictionary doesn’t have shortlist as one word but has short list as a noun and short-list as a verb. Are the following correct?

We have created a short list of potential candidates.
We have short-listed four candidates.
We are currently short-listing for the role.
When short listing, we will look at all eight criteria.

Answer: Based on the distinction the Macquarie Dictionary gives, the first three examples are correct, but the last should be hyphenated because ‘When short-listing…’ is an elliptic form of ‘When we are short-listing… ’.

An article I mentioned a while ago ( said that the use of the hyphen is declining and that people prefer using either one word or two. In this example, I prefer shortlist rather than short list or short-list even though it hasn’t reached the dictionary yet. I think our choice depends on how well known the new single word is becoming. The example I mentioned last month (break-in, break in) is not acceptable as a single word (breakin).

American English

A few reader comments about American English:

  • Americans ‘take’ a shower or a bus ride, whereas we tend to ‘have’ them.
  • When making reference to recent events, Americans omit ‘on’. For example, an      American reporter will write, ‘President Obama said Tuesday that…’,      whereas an Australian reporter would write, ‘President Obama said on      Tuesday that…’.
  • Americans frequently say ‘off of’, where we would just say ‘off’.
  • Americans say ‘a half dozen eggs’, where we would say, ‘half a dozen eggs’.
  • Americans: ‘He lighted a cigarette an hour ago.’ Australian: ‘He lit a cigarette…’
  • Americans: ‘I’d like to meet with those people.’ Australian: ‘I’d like to meet those people.’

Readers’ contributions

Storytelling with six lines of narrative: The Philips ‘Tell It Your Way’ contest, which received over 600 entries from around the world, invited aspiring filmmakers to create an original short film using the same six-line dialogue as the Cannes Lions award-winning Parallel Lines short films.

Watch the winner at

Unreadable charts: This Dilbert cartoon is a must if you get frustrated with unreadable graphs and charts.

Writer’s block: Some tips to deal with writer’s block by Steve Shaw, a UK-based entrepreneur.

Oxford comma: If you are never sure about when to use an Oxford comma (a comma before the final ‘and’), read this article to be reassured that commonsense is the best guide.

The power of simple words: A TED talk.

My recent blog posts

Writing referencing styles – author-date and documentary-note

How to avoid sexist language

Quote of the month

‘You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.’
Katherine Anne Porter, 20th-century American writer


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