FAQ’s about Writing

Do you have questions about writing? Here are some answers!

Can I start a sentence with but?

Yes. The oft-heard rule against it is an urban legend. I would bet serious money that you can’t name a single famous writer in English who doesn’t start sentences with but. Read more here.

Can you settle – once and for all – the controversy about the Oxford comma? (That’s the optional last comma in a list: “We brought wine, sandwiches, and cookies for the picnic.”)

Gladly. That’s another urban legend. There is no controversy. Newspapers never use the Oxford comma; book publishers insist on it.
If your company has a policy about that comma, you should follow their preference. If you’re writing for yourself, the decision about using (or not using) the Oxford comma is up to you.

Will texting be the death of English?

No. The only way to kill a language is to stop using it in your everyday life. Languages always have many variations – and people have always had fun with them.
The version of English you use with close friends is probably different from the version you use with your boss. Linguistics experts call those shifts “code switching.”
Texting is another form of “code switching,” and it doesn’t hurt English at all. (I’m assuming that you remember to make the necessary switch when you’re writing a report at work!)

When should you use a semicolon?

When you want to show off. You can live your entire life without ever using a semicolon. It’s always correct to end a sentence with a period. But if you want to impress your readers, it’s easy to change a period to a semicolon and lower-case the next letter:

You can live your entire life without ever using a semicolon; it’s always correct to end a sentence with a period.  CORRECT

Is there another way to use a semicolon?

Yes – but most people never have to bother with it. You use a semicolon with lists when an item has a comma. Learn more here

We invited Pamela, a youth minister; Karen, a kindergarten teacher; and Jerry, a social worker.  CORRECT


2 thoughts on “FAQ’s about Writing

  1. AvatarWilliam Vietinghoff

    Here is a “comma -ment” on the Oxford comma.
    There are some sentences where the Oxford comma IS necessary for complete understanding.

    The foods served at the company picnic were potato salad, stuffed celery, deviled eggs, frankfurters, and beans.

    If the comma is omitted after frankfurters, the sentence could be interpreted to mean some one prepared the dish often called “franks and beans.” instead of a separate plate of frankfurters and a separate bowl of beans.

    Of course the other alternative is to revise the order of foods; put the frankfurters somewhere else.

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    You’re right, and newspapers are supposed to insert that comma where it’s needed (but they rarely do). I would argue, though, that you can tell that the sentence isn’t that ambiguous. If it really meant “frankfurters and beans,” it should have been written like this – and it will work without the Oxford comma:

    The foods served at the company picnic were potato salad, stuffed celery, deviled eggs and frankfurters and beans.

    It’s interesting that you brought this up. My husband writes a gardening column for a newspaper, and I (a diehard fan of the Oxford comma) of course have to leave that comma out. We often do exactly what you suggested – reorganize a sentence so that it makes sense without that comma. It’s amazing how often lists crop up when you’re talking about gardening!

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