Does a Comma Take the Place of “And”?

I was an English teacher for 40 years. Every semester when it was time to teach punctuation, a student would gently remind me about a rule I hadn’t mentioned: “A comma takes the place of and.”

No, it doesn’t. But there were always a few students who would nod knowingly.

If I thought hard enough, I could probably come up with a sentence where you could indeed substitute a comma for and. But I’d rather save my brain cells for other tasks.

So – if you harbor this urban legend, let it go.

Here are three comma rules that will cover most sentences:

  1. Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea.
  2. Use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but (or any of the seven FANBOYS words).
  3. Use a pair of commas with an interrupter.

You can learn more about these comma rules here. You can download a free handout here. Happy commas!

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Is Grammar Necessary?

Is grammar necessary? My answer might surprise you: No, it isn’t – not if you mean identifying parts of speech and diagramming sentences.

People who adore formal grammar often say that correct grammar is essential if you want to get a precise message across. I say that’s rarely true. Suppose you heard someone say, “John don’t like that restaurant.” The grammar is wrong, but you would understand perfectly.

Here’s a joking message sent to me by my friend Margaret Wheaton. Numerals have been substituted for many of the letters – and yet most people can read the message easily:

Standard English is a beautiful thing. It showcases your communication skills and professionalism. But don’t confuse good writing with grammar gobbledygook. They’re not the same thing.

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Happy Halloween!

I’m celebrating Halloween today! More accurately, I’m celebrating Hallowe’en. I sometimes use the apostrophe even though it’s no longer standard. It stands for the missing “v” in All Hallows’ Even (“evening”) – one of the earlier names for our October 31 holiday.

In honor of Hallowe’en, I’m going to discuss two features of English that are scary – or just plain crazy.

Here’s a sentence that’s grammatically correct but so weird that I would never use it:

Either you or I am likely to win first prize.  CORRECT (but yuk!)

Here’s the rule: in an either/or sentence, the “or” part (or I) determines the verb. I am likely to win first prize is correct. That gives us “Either you or I am likely to win first prize.”

Nope. Grammar be damned – it’s just too awkward for me. I would use this version:

Either you or I are likely to win first prize.  INCORRECT (but I like it)

Let’s go on to something else that’s grammatically correct but – to me – unbearably clumsy: “that of.” Take a look at this sentence from “This Is the Moment Rachel Maddow Has Been Waiting For,” an article in the New York Times Magazine:

If today’s dominant political recreational metaphor is that of the three-dimensional chess game, Maddow is hunched over in the corner of the rec room, methodically putting together a jigsaw puzzle. CORRECT (but yuk!)

What – I ask you – would be lost if you deleted that of?

If today’s dominant political recreational metaphor is the three-dimensional chess game….

Have a wicked Hallowe’en!

Halloween pumpkin

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Writer’s Block

Someone online posted a desperate plea for help with writer’s block. The question mentioned a “massive project” like a book proposal or dissertation.

Oh, my. I feel for you. I was so frozen with fear when I started my own dissertation that I didn’t write a single word for a month.

But there’s hope! I finished my dissertation, learned a lot along the way, and went on to become a pretty productive writer. Here are some strategies to try:

  1. Make up your mind to do it badly. That removes the intimidation factor. You can always make improvements later – and you will, once you have something substantial to work with.
  2. Start with a leading task – something small related to your project. You could type a couple of quotations you’re planning to use, for example, or look something up. Tell yourself “I’m just going to….” Often that will get your engine going.
  3. Know your favorite escapes and excuses. Mine is housework. I didn’t clean my stove for two years while I was writing my dissertation. It was too tempting to divert my energy into making my house sparkle.
  4. Find a buddy. Plan to meet for writing sessions.
  5. Change your location. I went to a coffee shop every evening for an hour.
  6. Don’t worry about inefficiency. Those coffee shop trips involved a lot of wasted time – packing my stuff, driving there, unpacking when I got home, trying to concentrate in a noisy atmosphere. But over the long haul I got a lot done, and those nightly trips gave me something to look forward to.

Good luck, and hang in there!

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Jean Reynolds’ book Five Minutes a Day: Time Management for People Who Love to Put Things Off can be purchased from Amazon.com and other online booksellers for $6.25 (paperback) or $1.99 (Kindle). Other ebook formats are available from Smashwords.com for $1.99.

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Let’s Stop Talking about Possessives

Every American should know the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem:

Oh, say, can you see
By the Dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming?

But wait a minute! Because dawn isn’t a person, it can’t own the “early light.” For the same reason, twilight can’t own the “last gleaming.”

Did Francis Scott Key screw up our national anthem?

Of course not. You might have been told you can’t use an apostrophe + s construction unless the owner is human. You can’t say “the dog’s collar” or “the tree’s leaves” or “the song’s lyrics.”

But that’s a bogus rule made up by people who should know better.

How did this mistake get started? Here’s what probably happened. Grammarians often talk about possessives (“Joe’s shoes”). It wasn’t long before some self-appointed grammarians decided that only people can have possessions.

Teachers and editors latched on to that made-up rule, and that opened the door to all kinds of clumsiness: “the collar of the dog” instead of “the dog’s collar” – and so on.

When you stop to think about it, many possessive constructions don’t involve ownership at all. A teacher’s desk is one example. Every classroom I used in my 40-year teaching career had a desk for the teacher (me). I didn’t own it, of course. I couldn’t take it home. But it was still the teacher’s desk.

I want to make two points today.

1. We need to stop talking about “possessives.” When I was teaching, the term I used was “of expressions.”

2. Some apostrophes are disappearing. The Associated Press has dropped the apostrophe from Veterans Day (which used to be Veterans’ Day – the day of the veterans). I often see signs like “Doctors Lounge” and “Judges Entrance.”

James Harbeck has some interesting observations about “of” constructions at this link: https://theweek.com/articles/564165/stop-calling-possessives-possessive

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Get Rid of Empty Words

My husband and I recently leased a new car. We selected the car we wanted from a list of closeout vehicles on the dealership’s website. The sales associate asked if we knew the VIN. I was impressed!

Many people would have said VIN number. That’s not quite correct. A VIN is a vehicle identification number. You don’t need to put number at the end: vehicle identification number number.

Similarly, you don’t need to say ATM machine: it’s an Automatic Teller Machine. Nor is it necessary to say Jewish rabbi, actual fact, or free gift.

Whenever someone says “Can I ask a question?” my response is “You just did!”

There’s no difference between “What’s the current time” and “What’s the time?”

Unnecessary words can clutter your writing. Develop the habit of looking for these redundancies – and getting rid of them. Your writing will be better for it!

Sign with word unnecessary turned into necessary

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The Whistleblower

My friend Karen White just sent me a link to a wonderful New York Times article: “The Whistleblower Knows How to Write.” Click here to read it: you’ll get a good refresher on some important points about writing.

The author, Jane Rosenzweig, directs the Harvard Writing Center. She analyzed the “whistleblower complaint” – a letter from a CIA officer claiming that President Trump put pressure on the Ukrainian government to interfere in next year’s Presidential election.

Somewhere there’s an English teacher who should be feeling very proud! Too bad that unsung person will never know that all those late-night grading sessions really paid off.

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Let’s Edit a Sentence

I love to think – and talk – about sentences. Writers quite naturally want to talk about big concepts: unity, coherence, emphasis, and the like. I prefer to get up-close-and-personal with a sentence. I think that’s where great writing happens.

Let’s edit a sentence today:

Protein, as well as vitamins A and C, abounds.

It’s correct. But I don’t like it. I think readers are going to stumble when they come to abounds. Shouldn’t it be abound?

Nope. The sentence is saying that protein…abounds.

“As well as vitamins A and C” is extra. You drop your voice. Those vitamins don’t really count. (Read the sentence aloud – you’ll hear that it’s really about protein.)

I have a rule (okay, I made it up) that if a sentence sounds odd, you should change it. So here’s my version:

Protein and vitamins A and C abound.  CORRECT

Elegant and easy! (Isn’t that what we’re aiming for when we write?)

It’s always a good idea to take an extra minute or two to edit a sentence. Those small changes add up!

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An Interesting Sentence!

A friend just sent me a link to a wonderful article about self-publishing: “The Authors Who Love Amazon” by Alana Semuel in The Atlantic, July 20, 2018. (You can read it at this link: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/07/amazon-kindle-unlimited-self-publishing/565664/.)

I love self-publishing. It’s wonderful if you do it right! I always tell writers to use a free platform – Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, or both. Do not pay anyone to publish your book! You can find lots of resources for self-publishing at this link.

But what I really wanted to talk about today was this sentence in the Atlantic article:

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  CORRECT

I’m reeling. Hardly anyone gets one of these sentences right – but there it is! Most people would have written it like this: 

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who has found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.

I insist that it should be have found. How do I know I’m right? Compare these sentences:

Omer is an author who has found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  (one author)

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  (a group of authors)

The first sentence is about an author who has found Amazon to his liking.

The second sentence is about a group of authors who have found Amazon to their liking:

Omer is one of a growing number of authors who have found self-publishing on Amazon’s platform to be very lucrative.  CORRECT

Three cheers for the Atlantic and its editorial team!

 

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Oops! Did I Really Write That?

Every fall my husband arranges for a crew to remove inflorescences and dead leaves from the palm trees at our building. Here’s a notice I posted for residents this morning:

About an hour later I realized that I’d made an embarrassing mistake. Did you spot it?

It is one of the trickiest words in the English language. The mistake I made is called an “indefinite pronoun reference.” In plain English, it was pointing to the wrong word. We were asking residents to move their parking spaces, not their cars. Or maybe we wanted them to move their palm trees! (My thanks to Joy Smith for pointing that out.)

Here’s the revised sentence:

If your parking space is near a palm tree, please move your car to visitor parking or Pope Avenue Tuesday morning.  CORRECT

Much better!

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