Feb 24, 2009 David Lang

Comma Splices

My wife and I homeschool, and I find myself sympathizing with my children whenever they try to understand the vagaries of the English language. What's a split infinitive? What's a run-on sentence? Where should you use a comma? It can all be so very confusing.

This last question of where to use a comma has also been confusing some Accordance users lately, and it's due to a mistake on our part.

When constructing a wildcard search, you can use the question mark symbol to represent any character. The question mark differs from the asterisk in that the asterisk can represent any series of characters, while the question mark can only represent one character. Here's an example of what I mean. If I search for l*ve, Accordance will find words like "live" and "love," but it will also find "leave," since the asterisk can represent any number of characters. If I search for l?ve, "leave" will be excluded, since the question mark can only represent a single character.

Accordance even lets you constrain which characters a given question mark can represent. For example, if I want to specify that a given character must be a vowel, I can place the letters "aeiou" in parentheses immediately after a question mark. Thus, ?(aeiou)* will find all words which begin with a vowel, because the parentheses contain the only letters which that first character can be.

Now, here's where we created some confusion. Some recent documentation mistakenly indicated that the characters within the parentheses should be separated by commas, like this: ?(a, e, i, o, u). Those who tried this search would get an error message, because the commas simply don't belong there. If you ran into this mistake trying to construct the searches required for the Search challenge posted last Friday, we apologize for the confusion. Take the commas out and your searches will work fine.

That said, there is a place to use commas within parentheses in Accordance, and that's to separate words in a list. For example, if I want to search for the phrases "kingdom of God" or "kingdom of heaven," one way to do it is as follows: kingdom of (God, heaven). Placing the words in parentheses like this lets me specify alternate matches, and the comma is used to separate those.

So remember, use commas when specifying alternate words, but not when specifying alternate matches for the question mark symbol. If only use of the comma in English were that easy to summarize!

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