A story by Peter Landesman in the July 11 NY Times Magazine begins:

On Dec. 14 of last year, just hours after being hauled out of a hole in the ground by American forces, Saddam Hussein received his first visitors as a prisoner of war: two Americans, L. Paul Bremer III, at the time the top United States administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the commander of American-led forces in Iraq; and four prominent Iraqis—Mowaffak al-Rubaie, then a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and now Iraq’s national security adviser; Adnan Pachachi, the foreign minister of Iraq before Hussein’s reign; Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite representative; and Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress.

Aside from being about as far from a grab-you-by-the-lapels opener as can be imagined, this sentence is an object lesson in the problems of proper punctuation. Amid that forest of commas and semicolons, with a colon and a dash thrown in for good measure, one stands out as wrong.

The first semicolon should be a comma. The structure is “two Americans, A and B, and four Iraqis”; the fact that A and B are each followed by phrases in apposition set off by commas does not change the fact that the comma before the “A and B” phrase requires a subsequent comma to complete the pattern. But a comma there would make for awkward reading, you say? Of course it would; the entire sentence is awkward, and if I were editing copy at the Times I would have drawn a big red X over the whole thing and scrawled in the margin: Rewrite!


  1. That’s my solution to most fussy grammatical/punctuation questions. If there seems to be a problem and no obvious solution presents itself, start over from the beginning.

  2. I would change the comma to a semicolon after ‘administrator in Iraq’ and elevate the first semicolon to a colon. Alternatively, ‘two Americans–…–; and four prominent Iraqis–‘.
    As each of the persons’ names has clauses requiring commas, the persons as a whole need to be set apart by semicolons. But there’s a yet higher break between nationalities, so we need a colon for that. This is possible, and is my preferred solution, but might look awkward because there is an introductory colon too. The sentence structure ‘X: Y: Z’ would normally read as some kind of parallelism, but I think in this case it’s obvious that the first ‘:’ is for introduction and the second one is a tonal separation.

  3. Punctuation seems to be the thing most literate people have problems with. When I read 17th-century texts the sentences are much longer and the punctuation is more intricate. I wonder if the evolution of the language makes it all more confusing. I’m not a linguist so that’s probably all rubbish.

  4. I rather like the sentence as it is. It has a breathless, labyrinthine quality about it, and is an excellent set-up for the story to follow. Remember the long opening shot of Robert Altman’s “The Player”? Chopping it up could well have ruined that effect, and I feel the same way about this sentence.

  5. I knew somebody would come along to defend it as written; I’m just glad it was such a literate and thoughtful someone. I disagree, but with the utmost respect, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to discover your blog, which I intend to visit frequently. I absolutely love your “Sufficiency” post: “I have all my life been taking refuge in knowledge. Sometimes, in the semi-dark solitude of a library’s stacks, my heart is full almost to bursting with the thought of all the learning that’s accumulated between the covers of each book…” Yes indeed.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Hat. I rather doubt my literacy in such esteemed company as this, but the compliment is gratefully accepted.
    (And, if you happen to recognize my style, you’ll see that, far from being a new fan, I’m a long-time devotee of Languagehat).

  7. Here I am again, commenting on old posts. I agree, LH, that the first semicolon should be a comma. What I would do, before recasting the entire sentence, is to eliminate that dash (always eliminate dashes if possible! They are lazy real-punctuation substitutes!) and put a full colon in its place. Then you’d have “two Americans, A and B, and four Iraqis: (list follows)”. What do you think? (And BTW, if you can’t figure out who “elck” is, send me an email.)

  8. Not bad. And I’m pretty sure I figured it out — an ex-desaparecido from the blogosphere, yes? If so, I’m glad to see him back!

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