The Oxford Comma – A Guest Post

In the English language, most grammar is pretty set in stone. From a young age kids are taught the rights and wrongs, even if they choose to ignore it in their everyday online conversations.
But there is one grammar rule that’s open to opinion: the Oxford comma.

There are two groups of people: those who adamantly use it, and those who don’t. Somehow, I fall into the mysterious third group: those who don’t really care either way.

What is the Oxford comma? It’s the comma that comes before the last thing in a list. Example: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies, and pasta.” I could write the sentence without that last comma like: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies and pasta.” and it’d still make sense.

There’s a really interesting kid’s book called Eats Shoots And Leaves that highlights the importance of commas, but in more obvious ways. The Oxford comma isn’t all that obvious and that’s why its use isn’t mandatory.

That being said, there are some cases where its inclusion makes for easier comprehension. Take the following sentence for example:

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna and Taylor Swift.”

One reading this could technically assume that my friends ARE Madonna and Taylor Swift, when I was really just listing who I saw at the concert. But if an Oxford comma was there, there would be no confusion.

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna, and Taylor Swift.”

I know I said I don’t really care about its use but honestly, I don’t have a preference because I was never taught to. I’m very precise about my regular commas and I know how to use a semi-colon, which is more than I can say for my engineer father (seriously!), but I was taught about those in school and because I pursued writing, I’m more aware.

I do understand the Oxford comma’s function. Lately, I do try to include it in my writing, but it’ll take time to become as natural to me.

Do you use it? Do you find it important? Will you try to use it if you don’t?

#guestpost #grammar #feedback

The Oxford Comma – A Guest Post

In the English language, most grammar is pretty set in stone. From a young age kids are taught the rights and wrongs, even if they choose to ignore it in their everyday online conversations.
But there is one grammar rule that’s open to opinion: the Oxford comma.

There are two groups of people: those who adamantly use it, and those who don’t. Somehow, I fall into the mysterious third group: those who don’t really care either way.

What is the Oxford comma? It’s the comma that comes before the last thing in a list. Example: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies, and pasta.” I could write the sentence without that last comma like: “I went to the store to buy apples, grapes, cookies and pasta.” and it’d still make sense.

There’s a really interesting kid’s book called Eats Shoots And Leaves that highlights the importance of commas, but in more obvious ways. The Oxford comma isn’t all that obvious and that’s why its use isn’t mandatory.

That being said, there are some cases where its inclusion makes for easier comprehension. Take the following sentence for example:

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna and Taylor Swift.”

One reading this could technically assume that my friends ARE Madonna and Taylor Swift, when I was really just listing who I saw at the concert. But if an Oxford comma was there, there would be no confusion.

“At the concert I saw my friends, Madonna, and Taylor Swift.”

I know I said I don’t really care about its use but honestly, I don’t have a preference because I was never taught to. I’m very precise about my regular commas and I know how to use a semi-colon, which is more than I can say for my engineer father (seriously!), but I was taught about those in school and because I pursued writing, I’m more aware.

I do understand the Oxford comma’s function. Lately, I do try to include it in my writing, but it’ll take time to become as natural to me.

Do you use it? Do you find it important? Will you try to use it if you don’t?

#guestpost #grammar #feedback

Three Things…

 

Just when things start sweetly seeming settled, a new adventure unfolds: I am back in the college English classroom, filling in for a colleague struggling with health issues.  I am pleased to say my colleague’s on the mend, and having a chance, after five years, to work with English students has been a treat.

AND–my brief teaching stint has also been a  reminder of writing challenges students face!  I find myself writing the same notes on papers, a LOT.  Don’t be a dangler, I might say, or, watch your run-ons.  Be sure, I might add, you remember how to indicate when something is a title of a major work.


The dangling occurs when we separate a phrase that enhances our understanding of the SUBJECT by putting it after the OBJECT.

So….we might say…

…She walked by the tree with a frowning face.

We might relate that…

…He gave the medicine to the baby with a spoon.

Or, we might even share that…

…She sat on the couch with a dish of ice cream.

And when we do, we’re talking about a grumpy tree, a spoon flailing bambino, and a couch that likes its dairy treats.  Maybe we could amend somehow; say…

Frowning, she walked past the big sycamore on Oak Street.

He spooned the medicine into the crying baby’s mouth.

…and…

She took her dish of ice cream and settled onto the living room couch.

Each time the rewrite offers clarity.  The initial version might elicit [unwanted] chuckles, and it might also deflect from getting our writers’ intentions across.


Sentences run on not because they’re too long, but because they are joined without the proper connectors. If two independent clauses, or complete sentences, are fused incorrectly, that forms a run-on.

Witness:

I am, so is he.

These are two tiny but robustly independent phrases, ineffectively linked. No worries, however: we have many ways to fix ’em.

We could make two sentences:

I am. So is he.

We could add a conjunction.

I am, but so is he.

We could use that nice crisp punctuation tool, the semi-colon.

I am; so is he.

Ahhh….we’re saved again from the slippery slope of running on.


Finally, I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about how to designate titles of works.  The old rule told us to underline the titles of major works, and to put quotes around titles of short works. That was in the days of typewriters, however; now we italicize the major works’ titles.  The shorter works’ titles get the traditional treatment.

So…

He was amazed that she enjoyed The Martian.

She loved the track “Hallelujah” from Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits.

The class is on “Chapter Eight: The Mighty Apostrophe and Its Many Uses” in the Dandy Old College English Textbook.


None of these are considerations that ought to slow us down when words are flowing.  Afterwards, though, when we’ve given our manuscripts time to settle and cool, we can go back with a discerning eye and edit.

None of these are major, catastrophic issues, either, but, layered, they weaken our authority.  The reader thinks, “Hmmm.  If she’s weak in her writing, can she be weak in her content, too?”  The answer may well be a resounding no, but we may have lost the reader’s confidence if the narrative bumps over tiny troubles.


“But it’s a HABIT,” one of the students wailed this morning, when I underlined a run-on.  Red pen in hand, I looked at her, oh, so, sympathetically.

“Yes,” I said, softly, “and it’s time for you to break it.”


Happy blogging my friends!

#Weekly

#Grammar and usage

A Parallel Universe (And One Reason All This Matters)

We almost didn’t hire him, but we were truly in a bind.

He was a smart, personable, eager young man, Todd was, with all the requisite qualifications to teach at a two year college.  But Myeera, the department chair, had deep reservations.

“Look at his application materials,” she moaned.

Todd’s cover letter was three sentences long, undated.  It opened with:  Hiring professionals!

It boasted three sentences–one a comma splice–that told why part-time teaching would be great for HIM.  It did not mention how he would help the college.

He typed his name after the paragraph and did not sign the letter.  Over three-fourths of the sheet was blank white space (and that’s three-fourths of a page of missed opportunity.)

His resume rambled for two and a half pages of hard-to-follow information.  Bulleted lists competed with paragraphs of narrative, and nowhere was there any sense of parallelism. We shuffled and searched to locate work experience and education. Those categories were there, but hard, hard, hard to find.

Myeera, who is kind but thoroughly honest, told Todd the truth.  “We’re going to offer you this literature class,” she said, “but I’m dismayed by the quality of your application materials.  It makes me question your writing expertise.  And English teachers should be able to write.”

Todd was a little abashed and a little insulted, I could tell, but he accepted the class.  A few weeks into the semester he came in to tell me he was really enjoying teaching detective fiction to a class of 22 people ranging in age from 16 to 62.  He felt he’d found a good match, in college teaching, for his skills and desires and training, but what Myeera had said at the interview wouldn’t go away.

He had been through the department curriculum, and he noticed we offer a course in business and technical writing.  He wondered if he could borrow a textbook and a syllabus.

I happened to have both in my office.  Todd took them away with him, and that term, he taught himself the material.  The third or fourth unit deals with job application materials, and he applied himself assiduously.  In mid-October, he came in with a new letter of interest, a new resume.

They were beautifully done.  I scanned them and emailed copies to Myeera.

“You must have been desperate to staff my class,” Todd said.  “I am embarrassed to have submitted such lousy documents. I get it now; I understand exactly what Myeera meant.”

Todd has become a trusted colleague; he now teaches both literature and writing classes, and, while his methods are engaging, his standards are way, way high.  “I don’t want,” he says, “my students to lose a job because they don’t understand the importance of presenting themselves well in writing.”

Todd is right.  A person can be gifted, engaging, intelligent, eager…but if those things don’t come across in writing, that person can be a victim of lost chances.  Right or wrong, good or bad, people judge us on the quality of our written work.  Mistakes and clumsy wording undermine our authority. It’s not just a cranky English teacher thing:  writing fluidly establishes, for our readers, just why they should listen to us.


Parallelism refers to the making of lists, or the creating of series, with consistent entries. Here’s an example of the kind of parallelism Todd originally flubbed in his job documents.  (I have to read a lot of resumes, and this is a pretty common practice.)

Resumés usually follow a format similar to this:

Name and contact information attractively displayed  at the top of the page.
Perhaps an objective follows. (There’s some debate about the necessity of this…)
Then, quite often, the author’s work experience is displayed.  (Generally, education follows experience, but that order, too, can change if needed–if the applicant has little work experience, but lots of schooling, for instance.)

In the work experience section, each position should be followed by a short, bulleted list detailing the major duties performed.  Often, that list will look something like this:

Deli manager, Bill’s Supermarket (2011-2012)
-in charge of twelve people
-I was responsible for opening every morning from Saturday through Wednesday
-sliced meat, displayed salads and desserts
-getting cleanup done well was my responsibility
-workers would refer all customers problems to me

The list isn’t parallel because each item doesn’t begin in the same way.  We see independent clauses, a phrase, and fragments.

A parallel way of creating this list would be to start each item with an action verb, as follows.

Deli Manager, Bill’s Supermarket, (2011-2012)
-open five mornings per week
-oversee twelve employees
-resolve customer issues
-perform/oversee all food processing functions
-insure deli was consistently sanitary

That’s neater, tighter, and easier to read.


Parallelism problems can rear their nasty little heads in everyday writing, too, when series are involved. Consider…

She was going to college, a single mother, and had a full-time job. 

Again, each item is presented in a slightly different format.  If we make them all match, it’s just more pleasing and smoother.

She attended college, raised her son without a partner, and worked full-time.  (Echoing the resume format, each item starts with an action verb.)

OR–one could write…

She was a college student, a single mom, and a full-time factory worker.

This time, each item in the series is a noun phrase.


Wielding parallelism tells our readers we are thoughtful and dexterous writers.  It is one more step to establishing our writer’s authority. It also makes for a more pleasing flow–one of those things that the reader might not notice, but that lends polish and enjoyment to reading our words.


I had the opportunity to observe Todd’s freshman comp class not long ago, and I left with my cranky old English teacher’s heart singing.  One of the students asked Todd if he wasn’t being just the least bit picky.  Picky? said Todd.  Do you know, I almost didn’t get this job because my cover letter was so poorly written?  Sometimes your writing is the only thing a person knows about you.  Don’t you want that something to be outstanding?

He delivered that little lecture with a smile and a flourish, and the student shook her head, smiled back, and got to work editing her rough draft. I gave Todd a thumb’s up and slipped out the door.  Ah, I thought, another convert, spreading the doctrine of good writing.

Sometimes, life can just be darned good.


Happy blogging, my friends!


#weekly

#grammar and usage

Grammar time! Plurals!

I found this cool graphic on Pinterest and thought it summarized what I was going to talk about today.  Rather than “reinvent the wheel” and try to put this into a written post, I thought I’d just share it with you.  English has so many quirks and eccentricities regarding the way things are spelled, pluralized, personalized and so forth, that sometimes I wonder how we ever manage to learn all the rules!  Here’s the link to a really cool website with resources for homeschoolers!

I hope this is helpful!  I apologize for the brief post, but I currently find myself slightly overwhelmed with work and writing projects!  Happy writing!

#grammar

If a Person is in Doubt, They Should Just Avoid…

The rules of American English changed last month. According to the January 31 New York Times, 300-plus wordsmithing experts converged in a New York City hotel meeting room.  Members of the American Dialect Society,  they decided that ‘they’ is now the gender-neutral singular pronoun.

So, now, it is okay to say this:

If a person needs help, they should feel free to appeal to the nearest police officer.

This decision is a reminder that our language is a living, growing, uncontainable thing–changing as we use it. That’s a good thing–our words and constructions are not dusty and fusty; they are alive, they are evolving, they are in-the-moment rich.

But I do have to tell you I find using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent a little bit clunky.

It’s a problem that has plagued writers of English for as long as I can remember.  In the 1960’s, when I was a new reader growing into an avid one, the rule was this: If you don’t know the gender, always default to the male pronoun.  So, in the sentence above, one would write, If a person needs help, HE should feel free to appeal to the nearest police officer.

The male pronoun was the correct option, and the female pronoun only to be used when one knew one was writing about a girl or a woman.

There’s a hidden message of ‘less-ness’ in that rule that the women’s movement pounced upon, creating uproar and expressing outrage.  Why, asked feminists, should we automatically use the male pronoun?  Why not use the female pronoun?

Oh, for heaven’s sake, many learned people responded, you’re splitting hairs.  What difference does it make?

Well, retorted the feminists, if it makes no difference [they, of course did not agree, but for the sake of argument] what would it hurt to use ‘she’ instead of ‘he’?

Controversy raged as I delved deeper into my undergrad and graduate studies.  I remember using an education textbook that alternated pronouns by chapter.  The first chapter used ‘he’ as the singular pronoun, the second chapter ‘she’. So, in Chapter One, I’d read, “If a teacher is sensitive and aware, he will plan for multiple learning preferences.” 

In Chapter Two, the author would write, “As a responsible teacher, she will always try to grade papers within a week of their receipt.”

I agreed with the feminists that always defaulting to the male was revealing–I had a prof who insisted that the power in society was indicated by such usages, and that our language clearly showed men to be the powerful gender–but that kind of awkward, self-conscious switching grated.  Wait a minute, I would think.  Who…?  Did we just change teachers? 

Using ‘he or she’ as a term was clumsy and distracting.  A group of English teacher-y types came up with s/he for the gender-neutral subject pronoun (I’m not sure how one would read that aloud), which worked until one had to switch to objective or possessive.  Him or her? Him/her? His/hers?

Ack.

Discussion, dissension, and suggestions swirled. Marge Piercy, for instance, in Woman on The Edge of Time, created a utopian future where equality reigned and the gender neutral pronoun was ‘per’ in all cases, subjective and objective, a clip of the word person.

It didn’t catch on.

As I struggled and strove to develop my own writer’s voice, I came upon a solution that almost always worked for me: avoidance.  It’s a strategy I’ll still employ whenever possible, even now that I’m freed to use ‘they’ at will.

In most cases, I discovered, I could make the singular plural without changing the meaning or the flow.  So, it would be easy to write, “If people need help, they should feel free to approach the nearest police officer.”

If that didn’t work, what would it hurt to assign a gender to the theoretical subject? Usually, the meaning was not changed by this. I might write, “When the student needs help, he or she should first consult the teacher.”  But I could also write something like this:  The third grade girl needed help, so she consulted her teacher.

That, it seemed to me, was a more interesting, immediate read. We knew a little more about the child; we could visualize and respond to the situation.

Of course, there were times–very rare, but still real,–when I couldn’t finesse the situation and had to revert to ‘he or she’, ‘his or hers’ or ‘him or her.’

Now, when those circumstances arise, I have linguistic blessing to write they, their, or theirs.  And this is good in ways besides the grammatical–as our society becomes more open and accepting of many shades and gradations of gender, the language needs to unfold to reflect that acceptance–transforming awkwardness into thoughtfulness for those whose identities don’t fit neatly into one category or the other. The American Dialect folks’ change is not just convenient; it’s also compassionate.

I am glad we have a language that shifts and changes to reflect our society’s metamorphosis.  But I have to admit this: the use of a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent will always clang a discordant bell in my writer’s ear. It’s good to have the singular ‘they’  in the tool-belt, an acceptable choice when needed.  But whenever possible, I’ll make the subject plural or assign the neutral subject a gender identity.

I thank those 300-some linguists in the New York City Marriott ballroom for taking steps to make our writing lives easier, but I’ll stick to my original strategy: avoid, avoid, avoid.


How have you handled this?  Will this ‘ruling’ change the way you write?


Happy blogging, my friends!

#Grammar and usage
#Weekly

A Little Comma Relief

Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: “Why did you have a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living room’?” And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. “This particular comma,” Thurber explained, “was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”

—Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

*********

Ah, the comma: misunderstood, underused by some, overused by others, ignored completely by a small minority.  It’s a punctuation mark with a dual personality.  A peek into The American Heritage College Dictionary tells me that a comma is “…a punctuation mark … used to indicate a separation of ideas or elements within the structure of a sentence.”  By that definition, a comma is a nicely functional little squig of a thing.

But the dictionary goes on to say a comma is ALSO “…a pause or separation…”  By this further definition, a comma tells us how to hear the sentence in our interior ear–how to read it, if reading aloud.  That’s why our British friends refer to it (I believe) as a ‘half-stop’–when reading a comma, you hesitate, but you don’t full-out stop, as you would with a period.

My friend and colleague Hu wrote a wonderfully concise book for freshman college English composition students.  In that book, he pointed out seven basic rules for comma usage.  I know of other books that have more rules. In fact, a frantic student came to me the first time I taught with Hu’s book, and she said, “This CAN’T be right! In my dev ed class, we had THIRTY-EIGHT comma rules.”  Despite her panic, I have never run into a circumstance that Hu’s rules didn’t cover.  I’ll share them with you here. If you find any comma-necessary circumstances missing, I hope you’ll let me know!

1. Use a comma and a conjunction to connect two independent clauses (or complete sentences). So…

Bill ate ice cream.
Jolie ate spinach.

…become:

Bill ate ice cream, and Jolie ate spinach.

If you don’t want to go to all the effort of adding a conjunction, use a semi-colon in lieu of the comma/and.  I think there’s a difference in sound: one is crisp, the other flow-y.  It’s fun to mix them up.

2. Use commas in a series.  I believe in the serial comma rule, although there’s discussion about this: I think all the words or terms in the series before the conjunction should be followed by a comma. (This was not the way the nuns taught us in the 1960’s.  Sorry, Sister Mary Felix.  But I believe that final comma adds a needed punch of clarity.)  So…

Bill ate ice cream.
Bill ate spinach.
Bill ate cheese.
Bill ate crackers.

…combined, become:

Bill ate ice cream, spinach, cheese, and crackers.  (Without that final serial comma, we might be tempted to see ‘cheese and crackers’ as one composite item.)

3. If your sentence starts with a clause or phrase of five words or more, use a comma after the clause or phrase. (That sentence actually illustrates its own principle.)  Again, this is a debated rule: I’ve seen writer’s handbooks demand the comma after four words, and others mandate it after six.  This is a place where I think the ‘How do you hear it?” question comes into play. Do you want your readers to hear a pause?

If so, use the comma.

So…by Hu’s rule, you would write…

In the past few days, I have been pondering punctuation.

But!  You’d have a choice in the sentence that follows.

Just lately I’ve been pondering punctuation.

…or…

Just lately, I’ve been pondering punctuation.

4.  Use commas to surround an appositive, a word or phrase used to define a noun, in a sentence.  (See how cleverly that sentence, again, illustrates itself???)

So…

The dog, a canine creature, has been domesticated.

“A canine creature” is an appositive phrase that illuminates the meaning of the noun, dog. The sentence would be just fine without the appositive, although it would not have quite the fullness of meaning.  I think of the commas here as being hinges: they could release the appositive, and the sentence would still stand.

5. Much like #4, surround phrases inserted into a sentence, but not necessary to a sentence, with commas. (Strunk and White call these ‘parenthetical phrases.’)

So…

Potato chips, as I’ve told you time and again, are fattening!

Cheryl’s husband, who was married seven times before he met Cheryl, is a reformed individual.

You can see where the phrases are inserted.  They certainly make the sentences more interesting–but the sentences are quite complete without them.

6. In direct address, follow a person’s name with a comma.

Meg, I believe you know exactly what I mean when I say this.
Shine, I think you do, too.

7.  And then, use commas in those ‘common usage’ areas:

—in dates: January 21, 2016.  If the date is embedded in a sentence, follow it with a comma.  So…

She went to Biloxi on January 21, 2016, after leaving her grandmother’s house.

–geographically.  Here in the States, we’d use commas to separate cities and states; in other climes, they might separate cities and provinces or regions.  Like the dates, mid-sentence, follow them with a comma, too.

I was born in Dunkirk, New York, three years after my brother John.

—in adding a qualifier at the end of a sentence: You do, too.

What other rules of comma usage am I forgetting??? (I know there are more.)


These seven rules have stood me, I think, in good stead as I write.  I hope they’re helpful to you, too.


Lynne Truss, that wonderful British grammarian, illustrates just why punctuation (and, indeed, the serial comma) is so important in the story that inspired Eats, Shoots and Leaves.  If you aren’t familiar with the joke, check it out in this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eats,Shoots%26_Leaves

Happy blogging, my friends!


#Usage
#Weekly #grammar