An End-of-Semester Wish List

dodo-in-tophatMEME

The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.

A Comma’s Job Security?

bewilderd commaThe comma stood on the corner, bleating, “Please, can someone help me? I know I belong somewhere, but I can’t quite remember where.”

Devon Taylor, copy editor, sat at the counter of the diner across the street and watched as passers-by skittered around the pitiful punctuation mark. They looked away determined to not notice it.

Devon (destined to become The Nib) couldn’t really blame them. Commas were notoriously slippery creatures. But there was something about this comma that made Devon think it was truly in trouble.

The editor set down the empty coffee cup and wandered across the street.

“What brings you to Conjunctionville?” Devon asked the punctuation mark.

“Oh! Thank you for helping,” the comma was practically hopping. “I think I’m supposed to meet a couple of independent clauses for a job, but I can’t remember all the details. It was supposed to be set up by the FANBOYS.  I read over a couple of news stories, but they don’t seem to want commas hanging out with conjunctions that link independent clauses. I just don’t know what to do.”

“I’m a copy editor, and I’ve noticed more and more news sites (like our competition, the Pencil Post) have been leaving you guys out between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. I thought it was some sort of cost-cutting move.”

The comma, dejected, said, “I was convinced I’d always have a job. Sure, those Oxford commas have it rough what with some people using them and some not. Who thought anyone would eliminate commas in compound sentences?”

“Well, the Associated Press Stylebook sure doesn’t,” Devon said. “It specifically states you should be in there, and most news organizations follow AP – or at least say they do.”

Devon’s heart went out to the comma which was, by now, in tears.

“Look, I have a connection at the Department of English Language Offenses. It’s just two blocks down the street on your right. When you get there, ask for Detective Dis Connect. Maybe he can help you. Tell him Devon Taylor sent you.”

The comma confidently strode toward the DELO. Devon wasn’t so sure it could be helped. The world was changing, and writers seemed to be getting lazier.

Got a Comma? Need a Comma?

comma-jar-copy

When you check out at the store, there’s a little dish with a sign asking for excess pennies or inviting you to use a penny or two if you are short. Why not do the same with commas?

Commas are always a bit tricky. There are so many exceptions to rules that, it turns out, aren’t really hard and fast rules.

When it comes to dependent clauses, the exceptions are rarer than most people think. Just put one in if the dependent clause comes before its independent clause, and leave it out if it follows the independent clause.

I’m worried about the state of writing, because commas are running rampant.

The comma in this sentence needs to come out and go into the comma jar. Writers (and editors) can dip into the jar when they see this sentence:

Because commas are running rampant I’m worried about the state of writing.

If I corral my commas into one place, I can avoid tripping over them throughout my office. They tend to hang out with the feral paper clips.

I’ve got a bit of room next to my monitor. It’s a perfect place for my comma jar. Where will you put yours?

Let’s Play Copy Editor

sherlockI know! I’m a weirdo who thinks grammar is not only important, it’s fun.

Underneath my slightly (?) crazed compulsion for correctness in writing is the desire for clear content. It’s the non-repro blue ink that runs through my copy editor’s veins.

Hey, I’m not perfect; however, I do understand the value of a second set of qualified eyes.

Here are some examples of errors that probably would have been caught by your friendly, neighborhood copy editor. Can you spot them?

  1. Scientists and researchers around the world are working on tinyrobots that use organic cells in their construction. The latest such robot device to use organic sells is the soft robotic stingray… — “Stingray Robot Is Part Rat Heart and Part Breast Implant Sprinkled with Gold” by Shane McClaun, SlashGear, July 11, 2016
  2. Every year on July 11 7-Eleven gifts their customers a free frosty beverage and 2016 is no exception! –“7-Eleven Free Slurpee Day 2016: All of the 7-11 Freebies Available the Week of July 11” by Rebecka Schumann, International Business Times, July 11, 2016
  3. Signing Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Adam Clendening were smart cost-effective signings, however after another disappointing playoff exit, it leaves many New York Rangers fans wondering what is the next step? — “New York Rangers: Home Improvement” by Jonathan Marrero, Blue Line Station, July 10, 2016
  4. Their play along the boards is a contributing factor to all their turnovers which segways perfectly into the next bullet point, their turnovers in the offensive zone. –“Calderone: The 54 Year Curse Must Not Return” by Jimmy Calderone, Jr., NY Sports Day, July 9, 2016
  5. Two men who reportedly left a poorly extinguished fire at campsite have been arrested in connection with a Colorado wildfire that has burned more than 500 acres in Boulder County and forced residents to evacuate. –“2 Arrested in Connection With Colorado Wildfire; Residents Evacuating” by Eric Chaney and Andrew MacFarlane, The Weather Channel, July 11, 2016

 

Answers: 1. “Sells” in the second line is incorrect; 2. At least one comma is needed after the first independent clause (beverage, and), usually the singular pronoun its is used for a company, and there’s a case for using a comma to separate the numbers of the date and the company name (July 11, 7-Eleven) for clarity; 3. A comma is needed after smart since the adjective is modifying signings, there needs to be a semi-colon (signings; however,) to prevent a comma splice, and the sentence is an indirect question and shouldn’t end with a question mark (although it should be rewritten for better flow); 4. Segways are two-wheeled, electric vehicles while segues are smooth transitions from one idea to another; 5. This is a tricky one. The phrase, “who reportedly left a poorly extinguished fire at a campsite,” to me is non-restrictive since the sentence still makes sense without it. Since it is non-restrictive, it should have a comma before it and at its end.

Weekend Wrinkle: Punctuation & Road Signs

PunctuationandroadsignsHow many of us can’t seem to use punctuation marks correctly? How many believe they won’t ever get it right?

Now, how many have passed their driver’s test?

Punctuation is a lot easier if you think of the different marks as different road signs. Of course, there are rules to go along with these signs, rules we ignore at our peril. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t always strictly follow the rules. (Take it from a “lead foot.”)

stopsignPeriods [.]are like stop signs. They bring the reader to a complete stop.

Exclamation points [!] are like caution signs.caution

crossroadsQuestion marks [?] are like crossroads signs.

Commas [,] are like yield signs.yieldsign

Semicolons [;] and colons [:] are like four-way stops. allwaystop

detourParentheses [()] are like detour signs.

Dashes [–] are like lane shifts.lanneshift

Okay, so you get the basic idea. It’s not a perfect system, but it’ a good way for me to remember proper punctuation.

Wrangling Commas

Commas – they’re the most commonly used (and abused) punctuation mark.

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to writers using commas:

  • There are the comma sprites who sprinkle commas willy-nilly throughout their writing. These are the folks who take their elementary school teachers’ advice to heart and put a comma everywhere they might take a breath. (If all those teachers knew how many headaches they’ve caused copy editors, they’d cut it out!)
  • There are the comma misers who need an act of Congress to put a comma in where it belongs. Their writing (especially if they like long, compound sentences) are grammatical workouts for the reader. In the end, the reader feels lucky to have gotten out of there with her sanity, never mind understanding what she just read.

Commas scare many writers. They’re like strange cats – they can be friendly. On the other hand, they could tear you apart. You can convince them to do what you want, but you can never really tame them.

There are six rules for commas. Well, they’re more like guidelines. That’s why commas are tough to pin down.

Commas are used

  • before coordinating conjunctions to join independent clauses,
  • to separate three or more items in a series (including modifiers),
  • when using an address or date in a sentence,
  • after an introductory expression,
  • before a comment or question tagged on the end of a sentence,
  • around expressions that interrupt the flow of a sentence, and
  • around nonrestrictive (“scoopable”) clauses and phrases.

Check out extended explanations of these uses in “Six Comma Rules.”

The trouble with commas is that sometimes we need to slow down the reader to make a sentence clearer, but the situation doesn’t fit into these “rules.” What do we do then? We can put in a comma, but we have to have a good reason for doing it.

For example, we could say, “It depends on what is is.” Looks funky even if we write it like this: “It depends on what ‘is’ is.” For visual purposes, a comma is justified: “It depends on what ‘is,’ is.” (Notice the comma is inside the quotation marks. We live in the United States, and this is American English form.)

Here’s another one: “Those of us who can help to build houses for the homeless.” At first glance, this looks like a sentence fragment. But if we put a comma in the right place (between the verbs “can” and “help”), it makes sense: “Those of us who can, help to build houses for the homeless.”

Sure, working with commas can be frustrating. (Have you ever tried to train a cat to do anything?) But as long as you stick close to the guidelines and mindfully, knowledgably break them when necessary, you’ll be fine.

The Case of the Oxford Comma

The early morning mist swirled around Detective Grammar Smith’s legs as she made her way up the steps of the sprawling veranda to the massive front door. She had been summoned to Anthology Acres, the home of dot-com millionaire Fiver Essay and his wife, Paragraph. It was all about a comma.

“This way, detective,” an ancient question mark showed her into a comfortable but richly decorated parlor. “Can I get you something to drink while you wait?”

“No, thanks.”

Grammar looked around. Everything seemed to be in order, but when she looked out of the large picture window, she could see commas working in the garden and furtively glancing up at the house. Something was making them nervous.

When Fiver and Paragraph, who seemed to be inseparable, finally made it to the parlor, Smith got right down to business.

“We hired an Oxford comma,” Fiver explained. “We thought it would be useful to have an educated comma on the staff, and we put him to work in the library.”

“Then a week ago, he disappeared,” Paragraph finished the story. “We looked all over, but he was gone!”

“Are there coordinating conjunctions employed here?”

“Yes.” Fiver was a bit sheepish. “We try to give them a chance to rehabilitate themselves.”

Grammar interviewed And and Or who worked on the Essay estate.

“I don’t know what happened to the little bugger,” And snarled. “He just didn’t show to pick up that last noun. I had nothing to do with it, copper!”

Unfortunately, the Essay incident was not an isolated case. Grammar had a serious serial comma disappearance problem. She checked with Chicago, MLA, and APA who all agreed the missing commas were a dilemma. AP declared it was all a non-issue.

When a sentence has a series of three or more nouns, phrases, or clauses, a comma often appears at the end of the last element and before the coordinating conjunction. This helps avoid confusion.

Grammar looked high, low, and everywhere in between. Grammar interviewed conjunctions, they proclaimed their innocence, and the case went nowhere. She could continue the search, pass the problem to someone else, or ignore the whole thing.

The Associated Press Stylebook is one major reference that eliminates the last comma before the conjunction.

“News people, always trying to save some space!” Grammar mused, frustrated.

Finally, Grammar tracked down the Essays’ missing comma. It was on a beach in Jamaica bumming around with other Oxford commas.

“Bloody writers!” it declared. “They never can decide if they want us or not!”