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"In most of the cases they have no idea of what they are doing, they don't know what to teach at each level, they don't know what is hard or easy, and they don't even know the grammar structures necessary to learn a language."

Are commas used correctly in the above sentence? I've learned that independent clauses should be separated by semicolons, not commas. But I'm not sure if it's equally correct to use the serial comma to set off independent clauses in some cases, as in the original example sentence above.

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Independent clauses with no coordinating conjunction needs to be separated by a semicolon. But in the example you gave, it's just unnecessary to repeat "they don't know" every time. However, the use of comma is alright in your example. It is not wrong per se. Here it is used to separate items in a series.

Example:

Under section 136, a small business corporation is a domestic corporation that does not have more than 75 shareholders, any corporate owners, any nonresident alien shareholders, or more than one class of stock.


Now coming to the serial comma.

There is no hard rule for it. You can drop the serial or oxford comma if you want to. But adding a serial comma removes the possibility of ambiguity.

Consider these two examples:

  1. To my parents, Allan Greg and Sophie Clarke. (without serial comma)
  2. To my parents, Allan Greg, and Sophie Clarke. (with serial comma)

The first sentence means that both Allan Greg and Sophie Clarke are the parents of the speaker/writer.

But, the case changes after adding a serial comma. Now, the sentence about four people: The parents(2), Allan Greg(1), and Sophie Clarke(1).

A better version would be:

In most of the cases, they don't know what they are doing, what to teach at each level, what is hard or easy, and the grammar structure necessary to learn a language.

Still, if you want no change in your sentence except punctuation, you can go for semicolon/full stop. If opting for semicolon, remove the "and" at the end.

In most of the cases, they have no idea of what they are doing; they don't know what to teach at each level; they don't know what is hard or easy; they don't even know the grammar structures necessary to learn a language.

Why I added a comma after in most of the cases


Edit
Credit: Brian Hitchcock

In most of the cases, they don't know what they are doing, nor what to teach at each level, nor what is hard or easy, nor even the grammar structure necessary to learn a language.

  • 1
    @Usernew "But in the example you gave, it's just unnecessary to repeat "they don't know" every time. " I noticed that when I first read the sentence, too. Here is how I would write it: In most of the cases, they have no idea of what they are doing: They don't know what to teach at each level, what is hard or easy, and the grammar structures necessary to learn a language. – Luke Oct 26 '15 at 2:43
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    @Brian Hitchcock Do you mean that it is better to rewrite the sentence as follows? "In most of the cases, they don't know what they are doing, what to teach at each level, what is hard or easy, or the grammar structure necessary to learn a language. " Or even better: "In most of the cases, they don't know what they are doing, what to teach at each level, what is hard or easy, nor do they know the grammar structure necessary to learn a language." Could you please explain why it is better to use "or" or "nor" instead of "and," and provide your versions? Thanks – Luke Oct 26 '15 at 3:28
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    @Usernew Also,In the example you give the comma is separating four noun phrases, but in the original example I gave, there are four independent clauses separated by commas. I've seen this type of sentence at the beginning of the novel A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope..." – Luke Oct 26 '15 at 4:33
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    @Luke: You got the gist of what I had in mind. As for the "nor", I tend to look at it from a logician's standpoint. NOT (A and B and C) is equivalent to (NOT A) OR (NOT B) OR (NOT C) . What is needed is (NOT A) AND (NOT B) AND (NOT C), which is equivalent to NOT (A OR B OR C). In real English this might be put "They don't know [A], or [B], or even [C]." But this is more obviously 100% negative if you use "nor": "They don't know [A], nor [B], nor even [C]." – Brian Hitchcock Oct 26 '15 at 5:35
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    @usernew: No, "each level" means at every one of the possible levels. "...at different level" is both inaccurate and ungrammatical. Disagreement in number: "different levels or "a different level". AND lack of preposition for comparison: Different {than/from/to}....what?. No, you need "...at the various levels". Better yet, leave it as "each level"! – Brian Hitchcock Oct 26 '15 at 5:45

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