by Harvey Stanbrough (used with permission)
This is gonna sound WAY oversimplified, especially given the nineteen PAGES of comma rules in the HarBrace College Handbook.
But it’s true. If you use these five rules, you can’t go wrong:
1. Never put a comma between a subject and its verb or between a verb and its object.
Also you must realize that a subject may be compound, as in “John and Ray went to the store and bought a television and a radio.”
In the example, “John and Ray” is the subject. “Went and bought” is the verb. “A television and a radio” is the object.
Of course, you can also add to the size of the subject, verb or object and you can detract from the size of the subject verb or object.
2. When a subordinate clause introduces an independent clause, separate the two with a comma.
If you aren’t sure about clauses, Rule #2 is an example of itself, as is this explanation.
A clause has a subject and a verb but doesn’t stand alone, meaning it doesn’t make sense by itself. (A “phrase” is missing either a subject or a verb.)
In Rule 2, “clause” is the subject and “introduces” is the verb, but “when” keeps the clause from making sense by itself. Therefore it is “subordinate.”
3. Do NOT use a comma to separate the clauses when a subordinate clause follows an independent clause.
In Rule #3, “Do not use a comma” is an independent clause and the remainder is a dependent clause. This rule, again, is an example of itself.
As an interesting side note, the subject in Rule 3 is the implied “you.” The verb is “use.”
4. Use a comma before the appropriate coordinating conjunction to join two related sentences.
The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Remember the acronym FANBOYS. My female students used to love that acronym. By the way, you very seldom need a comma AFTER a coordinating conjunction, although that is a bad habit that some folks have developed.
5. Trite as it sounds, when you are in doubt about whether to use a comma, leave it out.
Believe it or not, most comma problems arise from the insertion of misused commas, not from their omission.
That’s it! The five rules of comma use. And really, there are only three. The first one is necessary, numbers 2 and 3 are the same thing in reverse, and Rule 4 is necessary depending on how you want the sentence to flow.
And of course, the last one isn’t so much a rule as a warning.
Harvey Stanbrough adheres to Heinlein’s Rules and writes across all genres. He has written and published 20+ novels and novellas, 160+ short stories, and hundreds of poems. He has compiled 5 critically acclaimed poetry collections and 25 collections of short fiction. Sign up for his Daily Journal or his ProWriters Blog at HarveyStanbrough.com.
by Barbara McNichol
No matter what your written message—a sensitive email, a report, a proposal, even chapters in a book—you aim to make it easy for readers to understand. But how can you ensure what you actually write is what you intended?
Ignore this question at your peril. No matter how busy you are or how quickly you want to advance your projects, slow down. When you rush to action, you risk having to redo, revise, and explain. That doesn’t save you time!
Turn These Writing Tips into Habits
What can you do improve the readability of your message as you write it? Turn the following five tips into strong habits:
- Write short words and limit the total number in a sentence. No more than 21 words per sentence is a good rule of thumb.
- Include one major point per paragraph and one major concept per chapter. Don’t try to do too much in either one.
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly so the strongest, most salient ones can stand out in a crowd.
- Break up large blocks of type with subheads—enough that readers can skim the subheads to quickly find what they’re looking for.
- Don’t change the point of view within a paragraph (e.g., switching from a “we” to “you” orientation). When you have to shift the viewpoint, start a new paragraph.
Always Proofread Your Written Message
Most important, always proofread your own message and, if possible, have a colleague check it, too. As you reread it, ask: “Is this exactly what I intended?” If not, rework it until you’re satisfied your message can be easily understood by others.
The benefit to you? You will save time in the long run.
What proofreading habits are most effective for you? Share them here.
by Patrice Rhoades-Baum
Have you heard the expression “murder your darlings”? It’s not a Halloween joke. It’s a century-old, highly respected writing tip.
Who said it?
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
What does it mean?
Sometimes while writing, we create a sentence or paragraph that is particularly energetic. It flows! It sparkles! It may be brilliant!
But if that sentence or paragraph does not support your message, you need to kill it. You need to whip out your red pen or hit the delete key.
It breaks your heart, but it must be done.
I believe every word, every sentence must support the message. “Murder your darlings” reminds us to be objective when writing and editing our content.
We are servants of the message we seek to communicate. We cannot fall in love with a passage that does not serve our message.
I’ve been writing professionally for 30+ years, and I know it’s tough to “murder your darlings.” My advice? Take a breath. Buck up. Do it.
The more you “murder your darlings,” the easier it becomes. Implement this writing tip to make your message clear. Your writing improves and everyone wins – except that “darling.”
Patrice Rhoades-Baum is a marketing consultant and branding expert. She guides solopreneurs – professional speakers, corporate consultants, and business coaches – to create a clear brand, strategic website, and polished one sheet brochure. Patrice has a 35-year marketing background: 25 years in high-tech corporate marketing + 10 years as a business owner. She specializes in branding for small businesses and writing strategic, hardworking one-sheet and website copy. She can be reached at www.patricerhoadesbaum.com
Share an example of when you “killed a darling” and didn’t have to stand trial for murder.
by Barbara McNichol
Does your writing come across as arrogant? Are you using pompous phrases? Take a moment to ask these questions!
With the spoken word, we have the privilege of adding voice intonation, hand gestures, and emotion with our vocal cords. That doesn’t happen as easily in writing. You might leave readers guessing about your intended meaning and risk setting a tone that can be misconstrued.
To avoid confusion, drop the following idioms and phrases from your writing altogether. Not only will you convey your thoughts more directly, but your writing will gain clarity.
Do These Written Phrases Suggest an Arrogant Tone?
Question using the following phrases in your own writing:
- Not to mention . . . (then why mention it at all?)
- It goes without saying . . . (then why say it?)
- If I may say so . . . (it’s your writing; of course you may say so)
- I believe that . . . (it’s your writing; of course you believe it)
- In my humble opinion . . . (what makes it humble, anyway?)
- To tell the truth . . . (you mean you weren’t telling the truth?)
- To be honest with you . . . (you weren’t being honest before?)
- For the record . . . (are we in court?)
- Let me be perfectly clear . . . (followed by bafflegab)
- This may sound stupid but . . . (it already sounds stupid)
- With all due respect . . . (prefacing a negative comment this way doesn’t change it)
Which phrases would you add to this list? Share them in Comments.
One More: “In Other Words”
Another oh-too-common phrase to question is “in other words.” Why? Because it often introduces a clarifying sentence that follows a mediocre one. Instead of adding a sentence, go back and strengthen the first sentence. Then you might not even need a follow-up clarifying one. Test this idea in your own work.
Ultimately, you strive for clear, intentional expressions of your thoughts and beliefs in everything you write. Don’t let phrases such as these get in the way!
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“Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain.” – William Zinsser, On Writing Well
This language expert gives excellent advice, but how does it translate to what you’re working on? I suggest this:
For nonfiction writing (including your emails), limit the length of your sentences to 21 words.
Why 21 Words?
With more than 21 words, you risk readers backtracking to the beginning of the sentence to retain or refresh the meaning. Few will do this! They want to understand it quickly on the first read, not the second or third. Also keep your paragraphs short as Zinsser suggests. Because people mostly scan rather than read each word on-screen, they can do so faster when paragraphs are short. Don’t set up a tedious experience for your readers.
Writing Well with Hemingway App
An editing app called Hemingway (www.hemingwayapp.com) helps accomplish this. It color-codes sentences based on ease of reading and indicates how to clarify them. When you use it as a learning tool, you’ll improve your writing just by following the suggestions.
Even if you don’t use this tool, pay attention. In my first draft of this article, I exceeded 21 words on four sentences. After doing a word count, I reworked them in ways that both Hemingway and Zinsser would approve.
Make that a habit for you, too!
What “Writing Well” tips do you have to share?
by Hugh Culver (used with permission)
I’m not a word-nerd, really.
But, when I’m scrolling through your post or email or book draft or whatever and come across a word that doesn’t belong (or, for that matter, doesn’t exist), I come to a screeching stop—can’t help it.
So I thought I would save you the embarrassment and share a list of 11 incorrectly used words. You can thank me by adding your own examples in the comments below.
Hair we go (just kidding).
1 – Everyday and every day
Years ago, my wife and I were driving a rented convertible VW in Baja with our 6-year-old daughter in the back when I saw an airline’s billboard that, in part, read “veulos total dia” (flights all day).
Trying to sound smart, I started asking anyone serving us if they had what I wanted “total dia.” The comical looks I received told the whole story; what I should have asked was do they have it every day (“¿cada dia?”).
In English, we say everyday when we mean common or normal, as in “It became an everyday occurrence.”
Whereas, every day means today, tomorrow, the next day, and so on, as in “It happens every day.”
2 – Adapt and adopt
If you adapt something you change it, to adopt is to take it as your own. So, after you read this list you can adopt the correct word use and adapt it for your blog.
3 – Already and all ready
You can simplify this one by thinking of already as talking about the past, as in “I already told him that.” And all ready as being about the future, as in “I was all ready to tell him that.”
Have you got that already?
4 – Regardless and Irregardless
Let’s set the record straight on this one: “irregardless” is not a word; the word you want is regardless. Regardless of what you’re working on or speaking about, that should make you sound smarter.
5 – Especially and specially
This is one of those examples you might need to say out loud to know which to use.
Usually, especially means particularly, as in “The speech was especially difficult to finish.”
Whereas specially usually means “in a special or careful manner” or “specifically,” such as “She made a special effort for that client.”
That was an especially subtle distinction.
6 – Between and among
Use between when you’re distinguishing between a list of separate, distinct items: “The difference between a Frappuccino, latte and espresso is…”
Use among when talking about things that are not distinct: “There’s a big difference among bloggers.” You can also use among to indicate someone is part of a group: “She felt at home among the coffee-drinking bloggers.”
7 – Advise and advice
Put simply, advise is a verb, advice is a noun. The quickest test is to say your sentence out loud. Like this one: “Nobody goes to a coach for advice.”
8 – Stationary and stationery
You write on stationery that is (hopefully) stationary. Get it?
9 – Principle and principal
Your high school principal might have taught you principles. You might even say that was principally her job.
My trick to remember the difference between principal and principle is the “pal” in principal refers to a person – so then principle must be the other meaning.
There are other meanings for principal, including the non-interest part of your loan and the principal in a firm (as in high-level partner).
10 – Then and than
When you use then you’re talking about time, as in, “I finished my blog and then doubled checked it against Hugh’s list of 11 incorrectly used words.”
You use than to compare something, such as “After reading Hugh’s list, I’m smarter than before.” (Of course you are.)
11 – Impact, affect, and effect
This is a tricky one.
First, impact should only be used when there is a physical action involved: “I was impacted from behind.”
Use effect if you are making a change happen and affect if you are helping make the change happen.
Bottom line: stop saying you’ll impact change, sales, productivity, or your marriage (especially marriage); use affect instead.
Hugh Culver a recovering over-achiever who researches, writes, and speaks on how to THINK better, PLAN smarter, and ACT now on what really matters. Learn lots more at www.HughCulver.com
by Barbara McNichol
Let’s say you have to fill out a form online and you’re restricted to 100 words. You absolutely cannot add one more word. So you work it the best you can, but what can you search for in your quest to meet that magic number of words and whack wordiness at the same time?
Tag-ons and redundancies (.
A few examples of tag-ons:
- continue on
- ramble on
- refer back to
- open up
- cancel out
- follow on
- send out
- start out
- finish up
- grouped together
- add more
- still persist
- continue to remain
- plan ahead
- sum total (choose one)
With many redundancies (such as sum total), you’d use one or the other depending on the context, but not both.
Your challenge: Question every phrase you think may be redundant and test each of the words separately. Which works better in context?
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. – William Zinsser
For a reference list of redundant phrases, send an email request with Redundancies in the subject line.
What redundant phrases would you add? List them here.
I know, I know . . . I’ve heard all the jokes about dangling modifiers.
But when it comes to grammar, they are no laughing matter.
A dangling modifier is a phrase that either is in the wrong place or modifies the wrong thing. These misplaced or poorly worded phrases can create confusion, or they can totally change the meaning of what you intend to say.
Or they can sound darned silly.
Consider these examples:
Having finished eating dinner, the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher.
Problem: The dishes did not eat dinner; people ate dinner.
Better: Having finished eating dinner, we loaded the dishes into the dishwasher.
Without knowing her phone number, it was impossible to contact her.
Problem: Who didn’t know her number? It?
Better: Without knowing her phone number, I found it impossible to contact her.
At age 7, Josh’s father entered the Army.
Problem: No one’s father could enter the Army at age 7.
Better: When Josh was 7, his father entered the Army.
Buried in an old cedar chest, Kia found her cheerleading sweater.
Problem: Kia wasn’t buried in the cedar chest, her sweater was.
Better: Buried in an old cedar chest was the cheerleading sweater Kia had worn.
Better yet: Kia found her cheerleading sweater buried in an old cedar chest.
Walking home last night, the porch light was visible a block away.
Problem: The porch light was not walking home last night.
Better: As I walked home last night, I saw the porch light from a block away.
To avoid dangling modifiers, pay attention to the order of your words and to the doer of the action.
Kathleen Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. She has for nearly three decades been helping individuals and organizations craft messages that inform, convince and inspire.
Clear communication is at the heart of success in nearly every field and endeavor. Kathy encourages and supports those who want to fine-tune their writing and speaking skills. Her Grammar for People who Hate Rules, a compilation of the killer tips she has been sharing for years, will be available soon.
Do you have an example of a dangling modifier (aka dangling participle)? Share it here!