Category Archives: Punctuation

Commas with “And”

I hear more questions about and than any other word! Commas – when to use one, and when to leave it out – are probably the biggest issue. So in today’s post I’m going to give you a simple tool for getting that comma right every time you use and.

(I need to add that there’s some wiggle room here. I’m still going to recommend my system because it completely eliminates the guesswork. I also need to tell you that I’m not talking about using commas in a list – the Oxford comma – today.)

Here’s a partial sentence about a picnic for you to think about:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic! Now read this version:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel

You knew right away that the squirrel came to no harm..even though the only difference is a comma! Amazing, isn’t it?

Many people swear that they’re hopelessly confused about commas…but anyone who reads these two squirrel examples can instantly tell you that the squirrel in the second version is safe. Here’s how you might finish the sentence:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.

Ah, the power of the comma! You already know how to use it. Yet many students are never exposed to the simple rule behind today’s examples: Use a comma when you join two sentences with and. (But works the same way, incidentally.)

Let’s look at another example. The only difference between the partial sentences below is a comma. Which sentence tells you that Betty was invited to the party?

We invited everyone to the party but Betty

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty

I’m willing to bet the farm that you knew right away that poor Betty was not invited in the first example. In the second example, she received an invitation but couldn’t come.

In traditional grammatical terms, you should use a comma whenever you use a coordinating conjunction to join two sentences. (Those are the FANBOYS words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.) 

In simpler terms, use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but. (The other FANBOYS words don’t come up very often.)

One more tip: Never put a comma after and or but. Notice the comma placement:

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty had to work Friday night.

You can download and print a free handout about commas at http://bit.ly/EasyCommas.

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The FANBOYS Words

 

That roar you heard today was English teachers everywhere cheering. Why? Because the word fanboys appeared in the Doonesbury comic strip.

“Fanboys” is a nonsense word for remembering the seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. But it’s not a nonsense word anymore!

Here are two good things to know about the fanboys words:

1.  They’re the only seven words you can use with a comma to join two sentences. (Sorry – you can’t join sentences with then, however, therefore, or any of the other words that so many writers try to use as joiners.)

We got a late start, however we were on time for the meeting.  INCORRECT

We got a late start. However, we were on time for the meeting.  CORRECT

We got a late start, but we were on time for the meeting.  CORRECT

2.  The most important fanboys words are and and but. You’ll rarely need to think about the other five.

3.  In this context, for means because. It’s a usage that’s not common anymore.

Beverly decided not to marry John, for she thought she would be happier on her own.  CORRECT

To learn more about the fanboys words, click here.

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A Good Night’s Sleep and an Apostrophe

A good night's sleep

A good night’s sleep

Should you use an apostrophe when you write about “a good night’s sleep”? Yes.

You’ve probably heard a teacher say that an apostrophe signifies ownership. That statement is correct, but it’s only part of the apostrophe story.

Apostrophes signify “of” ideas. Mary’s car means “car of Mary.” Dennis’ dog means “dog of Dennis.” Three weeks’ pay means “pay of three weeks.” And so on.

The apostrophe in “a good night’s sleep” means “sleep of a night.”

Time expressions often use apostrophes. A day’s pay means “pay of a day.” Two weeks’ vacation means “vacation of two weeks.” A moment’s delay means “delay of a moment.”

“Before the s or after the s?” If you take a minute to look at the example, you’ll have the answer: Spell the word (day, days, weekweeks, night, nightsmoment, momentsDennis, Mary) and put the apostrophe after the last letter.

Here are some examples:

a day’s delay

two days’ delay

a week’s pay

two weeks’ pay

a good night’s sleep

two nights’ dreams

a moment’s delay

several moments’ anxiety

For more practice with apostrophes, click here. You can watch a short PowerPoint about apostrophes here.

Follow @JeanReynolds

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Superman Teaches a Comma Rule

Many of us can remember squirming impatiently in our seats while a teacher tried to explain how to identify and punctuate a non-restrictive clause. It was confusing, right?

Here’s what’s even worse: Teaching it, as I did for a number of years. It was ghastly to watch students’ faces change from smiles to gloom as I struggled to make them understand which sentences need commas and where the commas were supposed to go.

And then I hit on a simple strategy that did the trick every time: I let Superman take over the job.

No kidding. All I did was play the introduction from the wonderful old Superman show (the black-and-white series from the 1950s, starring George Reeves). Notice how the announcer’s voice drops after who (“and who, disguised as Clark Kent…”) and rises again after newspaper (“great metropolitan newspaper”).

Click here to listen!

It’s like clothespins, I would tell my students. One comma takes your voice down, and another comma brings it back up again.

Want another example? Try this famous line from Mission Impossible (but be sure to read it aloud – you’ll hear the commas):

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to intercept the enemy plane.

Mission accomplished!

If you’d like to see a written version of this rule, click here and read Comma Rule 3. Happy punctuating!

Superman


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National Punctuation Day

It’s National Punctuation Day! Have fun! Celebrate!

Here are two websites to get you started:

www.NationalPunctuationDay.com (suggested by my friend Bev Lerner)

And (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?): Victor Borge’s Phonetic Punctuation

And here’s a quick punctuation quiz. Read the five sentences below and correct any punctuation errors. When you’re finished, scroll down for the answers.

1.  We just got back from our trip to New York, it was a wonderful vacation.

2.  We spent a week there and visited: the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Bronx Zoo.

3.  Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C.; the nations capital and a fascinating place.

4.  Although, we might take the girls’ back to New York instead.

5.  A trip to Europe, if we can save enough money is our ultimate goal.

THE ANSWERS

Every item contains at least one punctuation mistake. Here are the corrected versions, along with explanations.

1.  We just got back from our trip to New York. It was a wonderful vacation. OR We just got back from our trip to New York; it was a wonderful vacation.  [Handy rule: “If it starts with it, it’s a sentence.”]

2.  We spent a week there and visited the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Bronx Zoo.  [No colon. Use a colon only if a sentence stops before a list. Click here to learn more. Incidentally, the comma after “Metropolitan Museum of Art” is optional.]

3.  Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C., the nation’s capital and a fascinating place.  [A semicolon is like a period. If a period won’t work, a semicolon won’t either. This is actually a Comma Rule 3 sentence. Nation’s capital = capital of the nation and requires an apostrophe.]

4.  Although, we might take the girls’ back to New York instead.  [Three things are seriously wrong here! First, never put a comma after although. Second, anything that starts with although is an extra idea and must be glued on to a real sentence. Third, girls don’t own anything in this sentence: No apostrophe. See below for suggestions about correcting this fragment.]

However, we might take the girls back to New York instead. OR

Next year we’re thinking about visiting Washington D.C., the nation’s capital and a fascinating place, although we might take the girls back to New York instead.

5.  A trip to Europe, if we can save enough money, is our ultimate goal.  [Another Comma Rule 3 sentence.]

How did you do?

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Apostrophes with Family Names

The September 2 edition of the Huffington Post featured an article about Oprah Winfrey’s dislike for reality shows–an issue now that Carson Kressley, the host of an Oprah Winfrey Network show, will be a contestant on this season’s Dancing with the Stars.

A sentence in the story caught my editor’s eye: the network “has the O’Neil’s and The Judd’s which might not be as crazy as some of VH1 and Bravo shows, but nevertheless they are reality shows.”

Nope. It “has the O’Neils and The Judds….” without apostrophes. Apostrophes don’t mean “more than one.” They signify “of ” ideas.

And the title of the show is misspelled: It should have been spelled The O’Neals, and that which clause should have begun with a comma. So many mistakes in one sentence!

To learn more about apostrophes with family names, click here.

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Oxford Comma

Sound the alarm: The Oxford Comma has met its demise.

Except that’s not really true. Turns out the Public Relations department at Oxford (not the entire University) is advising against the Oxford comma in its latest style sheet – a sensible decision, as it turns out (even though I, for one, love that comma).

First, let’s explain that the Oxford Comma is the last comma before and in a series of three or more. Here’s an example:

We served coffee, tea, and lemonade to our guests.  CORRECT

Oxford University has its own publishing company, and editors are instructed to use that comma.

Journalists, on the other hand, generally don’t use that comma. A newspaper reporter would write the sentence this way:

We served coffee, tea and lemonade to our guests.  CORRECT

Since the Public Relations department issues press releases to newspapers and magazines, it makes sense for them to omit that comma. But some commentators thought the whole University was dropping the comma, and…well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much anguish about a punctuation mark.

Why do I like that comma? I think it clarifies sentences and makes the reader’s job easier. For example, take a look at this partial sentence, and see if you can decide where it might be going:

Suddenly the car, passengers and all

I think you’d expect the sentence to turn out something like this:

Suddenly the car, passengers and all, rolled into a ditch.

But if you put that comma in, you can tell that the sentence is going somewhere else:

Suddenly the car, passengers, and all

Here’s the completed sentence:

Suddenly the car, passengers, and all their luggage rolled into a ditch.

I vote for the Oxford comma.

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Understanding Interrupters

Here’s a sentence from a literary newsletter article about environmentalist Rachel Carson. Can you figure out what’s wrong with it?

Though too poor to have indoor plumbing, her mother subscribed to the children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, whose mission included the “protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures.”  INCORRECT

The problem is the comma after “children’s magazine.” That comma doesn’t belong there. Here’s the sentence again, with the correction:

Though too poor to have indoor plumbing, her mother subscribed to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, whose mission included the “protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures.” CORRECT

Technically we’re talking about “interrupters” – words that cause a sentence to stop and then start again. Countless teachers (including me) have wrung their hands trying to explain to students how to do these commas correctly. Conventional rules and explanations usually complicate things and just confuse students more.

Luckily there’s a simple way to punctuate an interrupter correctly: Just read the sentence aloud, listen for a voice drop, and insert commas.

When you try that with today’s sentence, you’ll notice that your voice doesn’t change when you read “the children’s magazine St. Nicholas.” So – no comma!

Your voice will change, however, when you start reading “whose mission included…” Aha! Comma needed.

Here’s the sentence again, correctly punctuated. PLEASE read it aloud. You’ll hear your voice change. Automatically. In the right place.

Though too poor to have indoor plumbing, her mother subscribed to the children’s magazine St. Nicholas, whose mission included the “protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures.” CORRECT

To learn more, click here and read about Comma Rule 3. You can also watch a short video about Comma Rule 3 by clicking here.

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Do You Hear What I Hear?

English teachers often talk about “interrupters” and the difference between “restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.” Because I like simplicity, I prefer to call these Comma Rule 3 sentences…and a number of people have told me they like the simplicity of dealing with only three comma rules for most sentences. (Click here to watch a short video about Comma Rule 3.)

Let’s try a quiz! Can you tell which sentences require commas? (Hint: Read them aloud and listen for voice changes. Voice drops indicate that you need commas.) Scroll down for the answers.

1. Women who wear a red carnation on Mother’s Day are honoring a mother still living.

2.  I will send a message to Jack Hokkinen who’s in charge of the meeting about your suggestion.

3.  Fifteen hours which is what I usually spend on the financial report wasn’t enough this month.

4.  Central Florida home of Walt Disney World is a great place for a winter vacation.

5.  We need to remind everyone who works in Human Resources about the new procedure.

Here are the answers:

1. Women who wear a red carnation on Mother’s Day are honoring a mother still living. (No commas: You’re referring only to women who wear red carnations)

2.  I will send a message to Jack Hokkinen, who’s in charge of the meeting, about your suggestion. (Use commas: “who’s in charge of the meeting” is extra information)

3.  Fifteen hours, which is what I usually spend on the financial report, wasn’t enough this month. (Use commas: “which is what I usually spend on the financial report” is extra information)

4.  Central Florida, home of Walt Disney World, is a great place for a winter vacation. (Use commas: “home of Walt Disney World” is extra information)

5.  We need to remind everyone who works in Human Resources about the new procedure. (No commas: You’re referring only to people who work in Human Resources)

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Why We Need Commas

I’m on a Lawrence Block reading kick – I love his mystery novels about Matthew Scudder, a New York detective who spends much of his free time at AA meetings.

The books are well written and fun to read, but once in a while Block and his copyeditor miss a comma or two. I want to spend a few minutes looking at problem sentence from the mystery I’m reading right now, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

(Background:  Lisa Holtzmann, the widow of a man who was just murdered, is reminiscing about their relationship.)

Read along with me, and try to watch your brain at work. (I know that sounds crazy – but try it!)

When we met Glenn

You’re picturing a couple of people meeting Glenn, right? Wrong! Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville

Oops! She’s saying something different: When she and Glenn met, he had an apartment in Yorkville.

Let’s keep reading:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and

So Glenn had a studio apartment and something else, right?

Oops! Wrong again. Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and of course I was still on Madison Street.

Two commas, correctly placed, would clear up all the confusion, and you’d know immediately what Lisa was trying to say.

Here’s the sentence one more time, correctly punctuated. Notice how much easier it is to read:

When we met, Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville, and of course I was still on Madison Street. CORRECT

To learn more about Comma Rule 1 (the first comma) and Comma Rule 2 (the second comma), click here. You can also watch a short video by clicking here.

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