How to Comma Correctly—Comma Splices and Compound Predicates Clarified

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Commas, commas, commas—who cares about commas? You should. They enable you to help your readers understand your meaning. They give you control over where your readers pause and divide sentences. And they can make the difference between an unclear sentence and a clear one. But commas have so many different uses that it’s easy to become confused about where to place them. Here, I’ll address the comma splice and compound predicate conundrums.

The Comma SpliceTo comma, or not to comma . . . that is the question.

Consider the following: “Revising your writing is crucial, thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” This is a comma splice, which is something you usually want to avoid in your writing. Two complete sentences have been joined, or “spliced,” together with a comma. (Note, though, that a comma splice isn’t always wrong. It’s fine to use commas to “splice” together sentences if your sentences are short and parallel each other. “I wrote, I revised, I published.”)

So how can you deal with problematic comma splices?

One option is to substitute a period for the comma, transforming the statement into the two complete sentences already there. “Revising your writing is crucial. Thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” If your two sentences are closely related, you could use a semicolon instead.

Alternatively, you could rework one of the independent clauses into a dependent clause to avoid a comma splice. “Because thorough editing makes for a pleasant read, revising your writing is crucial.”

Another solution is to include a suitable conjunction after the comma, such as “and,” “but,” “or,” “yet,” “since,” or “so.” “Revising your writing is crucial, and thorough editing makes for a pleasant read.” A comma isn’t necessary if you have a conjunction joining two independent clauses that are short and closely related. “Jane writes and John critiques.”

The Compound Predicate

If you opt to solve your comma issues by inserting a conjunction, check that you continue to have complete sentences on each side of the comma or you may have a compound predicate problem on your hands. “Jane writes for at least three hours a day, and she avoids revising for as long as she can,” not “Jane writes for at least three hours a day, and avoids revising for as long as she can.” The latter example has a compound predicate, with the verbs “writes” and “avoids” each referring to the subject “Jane.”

So, how do you correct a compound predicate problem?

It’s simple. When there is no subject in the second part of the sentence, no comma is needed before the conjunction. “Jane writes for at least three hours a day and avoids revising for as long as she can.” However, some style manuals recommend including a comma in sentences like this (especially when the conjunction”but” is used) if it is required for clarity. “Jane received a call from the agent who agreed to represent her, and passed out.” Without the comma, readers don’t know who passed out, Jane or the agent.

What kind of comma trauma do you suffer from? Please leave a comment!

Five Steps to Solve Your Possessive Problems

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Mine! Mine! Mine!“Mine! Mine! Mine!” Children master the concept of possession early on (as anyone who’s spent time around a toddler can attest!), but the concept of punctuating possessives doesn’t always come as easily. Here are five points to consider when facing possessive predicaments.

  1. Before you go any further, make sure that you have a possessive noun and not just a plural one. If ownership is involved, then you have a possessive situation. But if you simply have more than one of something, then you have a plural situation. For example, “Paul’s punctuation is perfect in all situations.”
  2. When you have a singular noun, add ’s to form the possessive in most cases. For example, “Suzy’s spelling is superb, and Charles’s copy is colorful.” Note that an ’s is still added when the singular noun ends in s, x, or z. Not all style guides agree on this though, with some drawing a distinction based upon whether the s is silent or pronounced in possessive situations. And if you think that seems too simple, you’re right—there are a couple of exceptions to complicate matters. Exception 1: Traditionally, certain historical and biblical names ending in s only take an apostrophe in the possessive form, such as Achilles’ heel or Jesus’ followers. But some style guides now recommend using an ’s to form these possessives. Exception 2: Certain singular nouns used with for . . . sake simply require an apostrophe to form the possessive, though not all instances work this way. For example, you would write for righteousness’ sake or for goodness’ sake, but you would also write for heaven’s sake. But, once again, not all style guides agree, so you should refer to a manual suitable for your topic.Make sure you punctuate possesives correctly.
  3. For plural nouns ending in s, simply place an apostrophe at the end to make them possessive. For example, “Pupils’ penmanship will improve with practice.”
  4. With plural nouns that don’t already end in s, add ’s to create the possessive. For example, “Children’s books are valuable teaching instruments.”
  5. One last thing—don’t think that you must insert an apostrophe somewhere in a word to show possession. Pronouns like his, her, my, or your show possession without an apostrophe. And the same is true for the pronouns its and whose. For example, “I read your essay, but whose idea was it to remove its punctuation?” It’s and who’s are contractions for it is or it has and who is or who has.

Do you have any helpful hints for dealing with possessives? Please leave a comment!

Six Steps to a Perfectly Proofed Piece

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It is wise to revise!After investing your time and energy brainstorming, researching, and writing a first draft, revising may not be a pleasant thought. But proofreading and editing don’t have to be chores, and even if you view them as evil, they’re still necessary evils. Here are some tips I’ve found useful.

  1. Breathe! Take a break from your writing and clear your head before you tackle revising. When you’re ready, slowly work through your draft in a quiet location, taking breaks if you need to. Remember, speedy proofreading and editing usually mean sloppy proofreading and editing.
  2. Read aloud from a hard copy of your document. Printing your work out may not be environmentally friendly, but it allows you to follow along in a way that a computer screen doesn’t. It’s easy to miss typos and jump lines when reading from a screen. And reading out loud forces you to slow down and focus on each word, each sentence, each paragraph.Microsoft Word's Tracking Changes makes it easy to see the edits you've made.
  3. Create a style sheet, or checklist, of important names, locations, descriptions, and anything else that must remain consistent throughout your piece. You wouldn’t want your blue-eyed, blonde-haired main character to suddenly become a brown-eyed, black-haired one, would you? And Suzy shoudn’t become Susie. Readers value consistency and so should you.
  4. Think about your topic. Are you missing a point that would improve your piece? Does your writing reflect your intended meaning? Is your writing style suitable for your audience and purpose?
  5. Check your punctuation, grammar, and content. Be on the lookout for typos, missing words, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, subject-verb agreement, homophones, and other problems. Spell-check misses many “miss steaks” and grammar-check occasionally makes strange suggestions, so keep your dictionary and grammar guide handy. Facts, figures, names, quotations, phone numbers, Web addresses, and other bits of information also need to be verified. And don’t forget to check the table of contents, indexes, captions, tables, headings, citations, cross-references, headers and footers, and page numbers for accuracy as well. Remember, when in doubt, check it out.
  6. Two heads really are better than one. Unbiased readers can let you know if something is vague or lacking. And they’ll catch errors that you missed because you saw what you thought you wrote instead of what you really wrote. If this isn’t an option, at least go through your piece a second time.

Do you have any other helpful proofreading and editing tips? Please leave a comment!

The Relativity of Writing Right

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What's right?Recently a client sent me a piece they’d been working on for a while, asking me to “please make the writing right.” That made me wonder, what does it take for writing to be “right”? Do you have to follow every grammatical rule, spelling convention, punctuation guideline, and stylistic instruction you’ve memorized over the years, no matter what? I don’t think so. And whose “rules” would you even follow, since they often vary from style guide to style guide.

Sure, there are basic spelling, grammar, punctuation, and stylistic conventions that you should follow if you want your readers to understand what you’re trying to say, but part of writing right depends on your situation. It’s more of an art than an exact science.

What’s right for one situation might not work for another. An academic research paper will be written in a different tone and style than a memoir, and a professional cover letter will differ from a message sent to a friend. Fiction books operate under a different set of standards than nonfiction ones. What you’re writing impacts a long list of decisions you make as you work on your piece. Should you use contractions? Acronyms and technical jargon? The serial comma? LongWhat's "right" varies from person to person and situation to situation. sentences or short ones? All of these elements, and more, vary from piece to piece.

In short, the one rule you should always follow if you want your writing to be right is to do what works for your writing, for your purpose, and for your reader. Now, I’m not saying you should completely ignore the agreed-upon mechanics of writing—that wouldn’t work for your writing or for your reader, and it would make for some really irritating writing. But once you know the rules, if something doesn’t quite work for you, and you have a good reason for ignoring it, go ahead and do so.

What do you think “writing right” entails? Please leave a comment!