Inter alia, the Media Observer, Kenya’s media watchdog publication had this to say of a passage culled from a local newspaper: “Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees including cypress and cedar, all over 20 years old
(end of newspaper quote). Cypress and cedar are not indigenous trees
(Laconic critique by the Media Observer)”.
There is nothing in the quoted text to befuddle, or suggest that cedar and cypress are indigenous trees. The cause of the misconception is the preposition ‘including’, yet only its omission would have given credence to the critique - Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees cypress and cedar, all over 20 years old.
The dictionary definition of ‘including’ (derived from the verb ‘include’) is ‘containing as part of the whole being considered’.
On its own, ‘include’ variously means; ‘make part of a whole or set’, ‘comprise or contain as part of a whole’. When we consider the terms ‘indigenous trees’, ‘cypress trees’ and ‘cedar trees’, it becomes clear that the whole in this case is ‘trees’, not ‘indigenous’. Having categorically stated ‘indigenous trees’, the writer was not wrong to have added ‘including cedar and cypress’, which we know as exotic trees.
If instead of the preposition ‘including’ we insert two of its synonyms, namely ‘as well as’ and ‘plus’, it becomes clear the writer of the highlighted passage did not err.
The phrase ‘as well as’ means ‘in addition to’, ‘together with’, ‘and also’ or simply ‘also’. A synonym is defined as a word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language. Plus, on the other hand, means ‘with the addition of’, ‘furthermore’ or ‘also’.
Thus, the sentences; “Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees as well as cypress and cedar, all over 20 years old’ or “Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees plus (in addition to) cypress and cedar, all over 20 years old” leave no room for doubt.
From this, we gather that when a writer meticulously picks words that do not cause confusion, it serves the purpose of effective communication well. The use of punctuation marks, particularly the period, comma, semi colon, full colon and dash, impact a sentence depending on where they lie within it.
The use of a comma immediately after the phrase ‘indigenous trees’; “Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees, including cypress and cedar, all over 20 years old
”, would not have left room for doubt. Commas not only occasion a pause in the course of reading, they also help in making every single item on a list stand out. Additionally, the Oxford comma, alternately called the serial or Harvard comma, functions like the ordinary comma and is applied to make a distinction between two things mentioned in a single sentence when it (Oxford comma) precedes conjunctions ‘and’, ‘or’.
Besides, these punctuation marks help in assembling logical groupings, like independent clauses. Independent clauses are groups of words that stand on their own and express a complete thought. For example, “Dogs bark”. If we were to add to this independent clause the words “but cats don’t” (Dogs bark, but cats don’t), the addition- but cats don’t
- becomes a dependent clause. That is because the clause is rendered meaningless on its own.
The Media Observer’s dilemma would have been obviated had the writer used the word ‘among’ (amid) to denote a combination of several things. For instance; “Accompanied by several county askaris, Waititu oversaw the felling of indigenous trees, among them, cypress and cedar”.
While a comma that is placed before the preposition ‘including’ sets what follows apart from what has been stated, the use of a colon after ‘including’ signals the listing of several things related to what has already been stated. For instance, “following the fight with her husband, Betty took off with the kids and many other things, including: Blankets, basins, cooker, his wallet, watch and the television set’.
In some cases, we use the word ‘including’ to show a complementary whole. For instance, “the workers were ordered to take out all the broken table chairs, including the tables, from the dining area”. It would be preposterous to emphasise that tables are not table chairs. Table chairs derive their name from association with tables, hence the complementary aspect.
Mr Chagema is a copy editor at The [email protected]