Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2012 May 4

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May 4[edit]

Colons vs comma[edit]


I often saw that copyeditors replace colons with commas ahead direct speech or quotes. Do English-speakers really tend to use the colon not so often, like for example in German language? In German language it is correct to place a colon in such situations, and a comma has the task to split sentences. Regards.--GoPTCN 10:18, 4 May 2012 (UTC)

I don't think colons are used to split sentences in English, usually just for lists. A semicolon is used to separate two independent, related clauses which would otherwise have to be written as two sentences or with a conjunction. - filelakeshoe 11:16, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
Except for introducing a list, I don't think I have ever used a colon in English. Roger (talk) 12:31, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
That's a dreadful admission, Roger. Colons are lovely little things, far more attractive than yucky old semi-colons. -- ♬ Jack of Oz[your turn] 12:39, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
There are no hard-and-fast rules; but, in general, colons tend to be used before quoted matter, at least in U.S. usage, in two situations. The first is when the introductory words constitute a complete sentence:
The congressman rose and began his speech with words of defiance: "Blah blah blah."
The second is when the quoted matter consists of several sentences:
John Smith has written: "Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah. Blah blah blah."
In most other cases, commas are used before (complete-sentence) quotations or instances of direct discourse. Deor (talk) 12:52, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
One of the traditional uses of the colon in English is to separate two sentences that are a contrasting pair, such as "Man proposes: god disposes". I for one still use it in this way on the rare occasions which I write such a thing. (H.W.Fowler. The King's English. Retrieved 2012/05/04.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)). --ColinFine (talk) 12:43, 5 May 2012 (UTC)
Yes, the colon is exactly right for this type of sentence where the first part leads to the second. For parallel sentences, where either could come first, it is usual to use a semi-colon [e.g. A man chooses; a slave obeys. (from our article: semicolon)]. Many writers avoid both colons and semi-colons either because they consider them unnecessary or because they don't understand the subtleties of usage (which have changed over time). Some writers avoid commas for similar reasons.
The rules of punctuation in English tend to be less strict than those of other languages, such as German. One reason would be that other languages are controlled by some body, such as l'Académie française, the Norwegian Language Council and the Swedish Language Council, but the English language does not have such a body for maintaining and regulating the development of the language. In addition to determining the spelling of languages and which words are 'acceptable', these bodies can also determine the proper way to use punctuation. When I went to school, the back of my Norwegian dictionary had ten rules for when to use a comma, including the rule that a comma must always precede the word 'but', a rule which I also adhere to when I am writing English, although it seems like few people who have English as their mother tongue are aware of any such rule. V85 (talk) 18:27, 6 May 2012 (UTC)
On the other hand, if one is concerned about transmitting meaning in one's writing, the rule that overrides all others is "Say what you mean (not necessarily the same as what you think you mean)". For example, the rules about the use (or not) of commas in restrictive vs. non-restrictive relative clauses would be disregarded at the writer's peril. Unfortunately, vast numbers of "writers" dispense with commas in both cases (mainly because our fantastic education systems don't teach these rules anymore), and in places like WP, other writers then spend time fixing these errors to make the meanings unambiguous.
Pedants might squirm, but you can probably get away with "My wife whose name is Mary is 35 years old", only because it would be generally assumed that one can have only one wife (at least only only one at a time), and the writer doesn't have another wife, named Lola, squirrelled away somewhere.
But "My brother whose name is Fred is 29 years old" is a different matter. One can have more than one brother. Without more context, that sentence should mean: "I have more than one brother; the name of one of them is Fred, and he is 29". But often it's written by people who want the readers to understand: "I have only one brother; his name is Fred and he's 29". To achieve that meaning unambiguously, it must be written: "My brother, whose name is Fred, is 29 years old". Here's a good summary of the rules. -- ♬ Jack of Oz[your turn] 00:23, 7 May 2012 (UTC)

Gender of collections of nouns in German[edit]

How would the phrase "the king and queen" be translated into German (assuming for the moment I'm talking about the nominative case)? I'm not sure which gender the article should be - is it "der König und Königin", because the article is attached to König (in which could it also be "die Königin und König"?) or "die König und Königin", because I've got multiple objects so it's a plural? Or is it something else entirely - would I have to say "der König und die Königin" perhaps? Smurrayinchester 14:03, 4 May 2012 (UTC)

"der König und die Königin" is correct. You can not put only one article ahead a collection of nouns, this is incorrect in German. Regards.--GoPTCN 14:33, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
But, at least in this case, you could as well circumvent the question by just calling them "das Königspaar" (royal couple), what I'd consider to be more common. --Michael Fleischhacker (talk) 15:06, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
Ah, thanks. I tried guessing it by comparing Google results - "der König und Königin" gets more Google hits than "der König und die Königin", but I decided the fact it was used by the majority didn't necessarily mean it was right. Smurrayinchester 21:17, 4 May 2012 (UTC)
I rechecked, and "der König und die Königin" has three times more Google hits than "der König und Königin". Most of the latter belong to different grammatical constructions, like "der [aforementioned] König and Königin [name]" or "die Kutsche, in der König und Königin fuhren". There is no question which is the correct form. --KnightMove (talk) 07:58, 6 May 2012 (UTC)