4.4: When you're ready, learn the rules that will help you
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You make have heard a joke like this before:
A man broke his hand and went to see an orthopedic surgeon. He says, "Doctor, you have to help me. I've been to three other doctors already who couldn't help me. I need to know: will I be able to play the violin when my hand heals." The doctor takes some x-rays and says, "Well, your hand is definitely broken. I'll have to do surgery and you'll be in a cast for at least 6 weeks. But, yes, you'll be able to play the violin when I'm done."
Six weeks later, the man returns to have the cast removed. He says, "Doctor, I'm so excited to have this cast off." The doctor takes off the cast, and the man asks "So now I can play the violin?" The doctor says, "Everything looks perfect. Yes, you will be be able to play the violin."
The next day, the man returns, carrying a violin. He is angry. The doctor asks, "What's wrong?". The man says, "You told me I'd be able to play the violin. I've been practicing all night. Listen to this." He begins to play. The doctor looks horrified. The doctor says, "Oh my God. You sound terrible. I don't know what happened." The doctor orders more x-rays and scans, and they don't show any problems. The doctor says, "The bones healed perfectly. There's no nerve damage. The surgery went perfectly. I don't understand why you sound so terrible. Tell me everything that happened. Start at the beginning."
The man says, "Well, I always wanted to play the violin. I tired to play, but I couldn't. So I punched the wall ... "
How to do improve your writing? The same way you improve anything: Practice. Practice. Practice. But that's only part of it. Like the man in the joke, practice alone isn't enough. Writing, like playing music, does rely on certain sets of skills that you can choose to improve through practice.
Once you feel confident enough in your ability to express yourself, you might want to start learning some of the formal rules.
Some rules to start with: Commas
Many writing teachers will confess that it wasn't until they themselves became teachers that they finally began to really understand the rule for writing. My comma usage, for example, improved drastically, as soon as I had to start explaining to other people why I thought their commas might not be in the right place.
1. Use a comma to join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction:
CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant, but the punishment was excessive.
ALSO CORRECT: Her misdeed was significant but justified by the circumstances.
In the first example, the comma is telling the reader that one clause (her misdeed was significant) is ending and another (the punishment was excessive) beginning. The second example does not use a comma, because the words that follow “but” (justified by the circumstances) do not add up to an independent clause; they make a dependent clause that could not stand alone as a sentence.
Note: “Because” is NOT a coordinating conjunction. It’s a subordinating conjunction. Therefore, it does not use a comma:
INCORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling, because many people distrust the government.
CORRECT: Conspiracy theories can be compelling because many people distrust the government.
“Because,” like other subordinating conjunctions (such as “although,” “unless,” or “until”), is meant to knit together one indivisible thought; hence, no comma. Including a comma weakens the connection in the mind of your reader.
2. Use a comma to mark the end of an introductory element
CORRECT: While we were eating, the baby crawled out of the room.
CORRECT: Alongside the road, we found the perpetrator’s gun.
CORRECT: Because many distrust the government, conspiracy theories can be compelling.
The first example would be comically confusing without the comma. The second example shows how the comma helps your reader separate the introductory element from the part that followed. The third example might be confusing. The sentence from part A, above, beginning with “Conspiracy theories” does not use a comma, but in this example, a dependent clause is serving as as an introductory element.
3. Use a comma to set off non-essential information (so-called non-restrictive elements)
Both of these sentences are correct, but they convey different ideas:
EXAMPLE 1: Gathering places vital to their communities are worth the investment.
EXAMPLE 2: Gathering places, vital to their communities, are worth the investment.
The first says that only those gathering places that are vital to their communities are worth the investment (implying that some are not vital and therefore not worth investing in). In that first example, “vital to their communities” is a restrictive element. In the second example “vital to their communities” is extra information. The sentence implies that gathering places in general are worth the investment (ostensibly because they’re vital to their communities). The commas mark the phrase as non-essential information, which is a non-restrictive element. In writing the second sentence, you might enclose the non-essential information in parentheses instead.
4. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid sentence fragments
At some point, you were probably instructed that all sentences must have a subject (which includes a noun) and a predicate (which includes a verb) and that they must be written to stand alone. Consider this example of a sentence fragment:
INCORRECT: When you go to the supermarket. You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.
It has a subject (you) and predicate (go to the supermarket), but the “when” indicates that the sentence is incomplete. When people write sentence fragments, they usually have the missing elements in the preceding or following sentences, so it’s really a punctuation error.
CORRECT: When you go to the supermarket, you don’t often think about the work behind the scenes.
ALSO CORRECT: You don’t often think about the work behind the scenes when you go to the supermarket.
In the first version the dependent clause (the part that couldn’t stand alone) comes first, necessitating a comma. In the second, the main clause (the part that could stand alone) comes first, so no comma is used.
5. Use punctuation and coordinating conjunctions to avoid run-on sentences and comma splices
A run-on sentence (one that smooshes two sentences together) may be incorrectly connected with a comma, which is then called a comma splice. This error is easily corrected with punctuation and some coordinating words.
INCORRECT (run-on): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
INCORRECT (comma splice): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
Clearly, the writer wants the reader to see these two sentences as connected. He or she has three options to show their reader how the sentences relate.
CORRECT OPTION 1 (semi-colon): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works; it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
The semi-colon is an elegant and underutilized option. By joining two sentences with a semi-colon, the writer can subtly tell the reader that the epic’s earliness and influence, together, make it important.
CORRECT OPTION 2 (comma and coordinating conjunction): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works, and it had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
The use of “and” in this option also tells the reader to put the two claims together. A more specific conjunction—such as “but,” “so”, or “yet”—is usually a better choice than “and” or a semi-colon because it would provide more information about how the two claims relate.
CORRECT OPTION 3 (separate sentences): The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest literary works. It had a major influence on Mesopotamian culture.
If you don’t want your reader to consider the two sentences closely related, you can convey that by choosing separate sentences. With the Gilgamesh example, you might choose this option if the paragraph is mostly about the influence of the epic on Mesopotamian culture but you have a good reason to include a sentence about how early it is. These two sentences would function well as the first two sentences of an introductory paragraph.
Bonus: Use colons for lists, quotations, and explanatory information
INCORRECT: We packed: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.
CORRECT: We packed the essentials: clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit.
For lists, use a colon when the part before the colon can stand alone as a sentence. Otherwise, leave the colon out (“We packed clothes, camping equipment, and a first-aid kit”).
INCORRECT: Mitchell explains that: “Part of the fascination of Gilgamesh is that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”5
CORRECT: Mitchell explains the power of the epic: “Part of the fascination of Gilgameshis that, like any great work of literature, it has much to tell us about ourselves.”6
You can use a colon to introduce a quote if the parts before and after the colon can stand as complete sentences. A comma is an option here as well. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence and a colon is another underutilized trick in student writing. Recall from a previous chapterthat you have to use source material within your own analytical thread. Introducing a quote with your own complete sentence can make it immediately clear why the quote you choose is important to your argument.
If you want to learn more: Editing and Grammar Resources (a Links List)
If you want to learn the rules, The Nature of Writing is a great free and open resource for developing your writing. It offers easy to understand explanations of elements of effective writing. And, it has quizzes that give you immediate feedback. Try out a few now:
Comma Splices and Fused Sentences
Here are some other resources
Grammar Girl: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl
Purdue OWL: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/
Grammar Monster: http://grammar-monster.com
The New Yorker’s Comma Queen (videos): http://video.newyorker.com/series/comma-queen