Tag Archives: editing

Comma drama

by Carlie Sanderude

I’m sure I’m not the only one to know how easy it is to get tripped up over commas when writing. Sometimes I get “comma happy” and throw in commas after nearly every word. Other times I get “comma lazy” and don’t include enough commas at all. Commas really are not as complicated as we make them out to be if we follow a few simple guidelines. With a little help from my brother (who used to be a writing tutor before he graduated), let me offer the top five most common situations where you would need to use a comma in a sentence:

  1. Between items in a series. Note: the final comma is the somewhat famous Oxford comma that may be considered optional. Use it for clarity in most writing; do not use it in news writing and other mass communication courses.

Ex: Will you please give me a book, a pen, and a piece of paper?

  1. Between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are those that could be connected with “and,” but instead you choose to use a comma.

Ex: The loud, angry man went storming out of the store.

  1. Before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses. The coordinating conjunctions spell FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Ex: I guess I didn’t need to buy the shoes, but I wanted to anyway.

  1. After an introductory phrase or clause. An introductory phrase or clause is a group of words that sets up a sentence, but is not the main subject of a sentence. It just provides added information.

Ex: When I went to France, I ate bread and cheese everyday.

  1. After introducing a quote. Place a comma after words such as “said” or “stated.” The quote must be a direct quote. If you use the word “that,” then the quote just becomes part of the sentence structure and no comma is needed.

Ex: Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Follow these rules when using commas, and life will become so much easier. If you want to know more situations where commas should be used, visit the tutors in the writing café in the library and ask for a comma handout! Commas can be daunting, but once you get the hang of it, they’re not difficult at all. But remember: just because you make a pause in a sentence doesn’t mean that you need to add a comma! That’s the big myth in this comma drama.

Carlie Sanderude is a senior at Principia College studying business administration and philosophy. She plays on the college’s soccer and tennis teams and has been a writing tutor for two years.

The persnickety apostrophe

by Laura Tibbetts

Apostrophes can sometimes be persnickety! If you feel that way, I hope you enjoy the following guide about when to use this lovely form of punctuation (hint: there are two main times).

THE TWO MAIN TIMES (I told you this was coming):

1. Contractionscombining two words and/or taking out letters

examples: until— ’til; you are—you’re; it is—it’s

Note: The only time there is an apostrophe in it’s is when the word is meant to be a contraction of “it is.” The possessive of the word has no apostrophe, as in this: The mouse ate its cheese.

2. Possessiveswhen something belongs to something else

  • For possessive singular nouns and proper nouns, add an apostrophe before the s

example: the cat’s hat

  • For possessive plural words ending in s, add an apostrophe after the s

example: the cats’ hats (multiple cats)

Note: For plurals like women and children, which do not end in s, add the apostrophe before the s, as in this: the children’s books

Some people get confused about what to do with words that already end in s, like Jesus or Socrates. Mostly for the sake of pronunciation, many writers will simply add an apostrophe (not another s) at the end—Jesus’ parables or Socrates’ long robe—when indicating possession.

In case you were curious, here are some examples of times not to use apostrophes:

1. With plurals (unless of course they are possessive)—for example, the plural of Monday is Mondays, not  Monday’s
2. With the pronouns his, hers, yours, or ours (and don’t forget its)
3. With who, when it is meant to be possessive—the word who’s means who is. And if you’re trying to ask who a book belongs to you would say, “Whose book is this?”

For more information, check out Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/621/01/

or Writer’s Help: www.writershelp.com (search “apostrophes,” learn about apostrophes, and complete the two exercises).

Laura Tibbetts is a French and art major, and her favorite college academic experience so far has been studying abroad in France.

An Awk-topodous Approach to Clunky Composition

by Genevieve Bergeson

Instead of imperiling my career in comedy (i.e., making a bad joke), I’ll cut to the chase: today we will explore how cephalopods and sentences are similar, that is, octopi and the syllable “awk.” “Awk”  is what professors and colleagues write in the margins of our writing next to confusing—awkward—sentences. Ah, but you probably want to hear the joke anyway.

Why didn’t the cephalopod share his writing?

Because it was too oct-word.

AwktopusSo, “awkward.” What constitutes an “awkward sentence”? Essentially, the individual parts of the sentence (phrases, clauses, etc.) don’t quite fit together; this in turn makes the meaning unclear or confusing. Instead of following the main idea (head) of the sentence (octopus), the reader gets tangled in the tentacles (phrases & clauses). On the other hand (or tentacle), the parts of an effective sentence work together smoothly to propel your denizen of deep thinking forward.

Awkward sentences (awk-topi) appear for several reasons, grammatical and otherwise. Perhaps you’re simply squirting ink and ideas everywhere because you haven’t figured out how to articulate them yet. Perhaps you’re unaware there are principles and strategies to help you eliminate awk-topi. Either way, my punny scientist friends Seth and Steph Allopod recommend this octet for eliminating awkwardness and making writing clearer.

Ready? Let’s get kraken!

  1. Make sushi. (I’d say “calamari,”  but that’s literally another animal.) Don’t cram too much into one sentence; separate the ideas into more manageable bites.
  2. Be direct. Say your idea in as few words as possible.
  3. Delete unnecessary words and information.
  4. Parse the sentence. Mark subjects, verbs, objects, phrases, clauses, etc., differently so you see the parts of the sentence and how they interact. (Sometimes words get caught between related parts and interfere with the relationships of those parts—subject/verb, pronoun/antecedent, independent/dependent clauses. Be clear about who’s doing what.)
  5. Start fresh. Turn your paper over (or scroll to a blank page) and rewrite the entire sentence.
  6. Switch things around. Putting key words and ideas in different positions may reveal a more fluid grammatical structure, which makes it easier for your reader to understand your point.
  7. Check verb forms. Eliminate unnecessary and confusing tense shifts. Use active verbs (unless passive voice is more appropriate for the situation).
  8. Word choice. Does the word mean what you think it means? Are there more accurate terms you could use? When in doubt, consult a good dictionary.

Happy thinking!

Genevieve Bergeson, in her second year as a Principia post-graduate teaching intern in writing, delights in all things creative—art, words, and music. She has authored and illustrated the children’s book Racing Pajamas (read more at drawstheeventide.com) and has several other stories in the works.