Category Archives: College writing

Clauses and Conjunctions–Oh, My!

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

“Grammar rules” can look like this!

I came across this nice post from Deborah Lee Luskin over at Live to Write—Write to Live that lays out the rules governing various kinds of clauses and the conjunctions that attach them to each other.

What this post supplies is “meta-knowledge”: knowledge ABOUT knowledge, that is, about the kind of knowledge writers need. We also need an inner grammar that allows us to construct functioning sentences instinctively in a language that is our native tongue. Growing up with a native tongue allows us to internalize the ways sentences work in our linguistic world. (When we learn second or third languages as adults, it takes a while to develop this internal grammar because our minds are pre-programmed to acquire grammar when we are very young, from listening to and interacting with those around us.)

This inner grammar serves us for speech, even if we don’t know “the rules” from book-learning—all the names of the things we’re doing. It functions less effectively for writing.

Why is this so?

First, writing is not a pre-programmed activity the way spoken language is. Writing is a LEARNED activity. Stanislas Dehaene argues in Reading in the Brain that vision and sound operate in different parts of our brains; our synapses have to remodel themselves to make the connection between visual symbols and the sounds that carry meaning.

Second, the punctuation that connects sentence parts varies between arbitrary conventions like putting a comma after the name of a state and important signposts for meaning like using commas to set off nonessential elements. Both the conventions and the signposts have to be overlaid on our spoken language awareness, requiring new coordination between parts of the brain.

Finally, written language demands a big burst of cognitive energy, especially when we haven’t had a lot of practice and have to think about every period and every modifier.

All these issues separate writing from speaking. They make the process of learning to convert our native language to writing into a secondary process more burdensome and harder to learn than simply learning to speak.

On the one hand, I think every writer should know the information in Deborah’s post: the parts of a sentence and the ways they work together. On the other hand, after twenty-five years of teaching college writing, I believe what the research into the acquisition of grammar “rules” tells us: people don’t learn these skills from lists of rules. Even the ability to recognize “a complete sentence” has seemed unteachable more often than not. A writer either has it or she does not.

Ironically, every indication is that we learn sentence structure and the conventions and signposts the same way we learn to talk: from being widely exposed to written language from a very young age. Reading comes first. Practice in writing to communicate is also vital. When we start trying to use writing to express needs or ideas we want taken seriously, we revise and work until we develop multiple strategies for making ourselves understood. That means acquiring a lot of rules.

To be fair, teachers can never tell just how much effort any given college student has put into learning the strategies for successful “grammatical” writing. This kind of knowledge is notoriously boring. Yet I have seen isolated examples of people who seemed almost illiterate and then somehow just figured it all out (for example, a young man I knew who joined the Army and emerged a totally different writer).

Does all this mean I think aspiring (and successful) writers shouldn’t learn the information in the post I’m sharing? Not at all. But just as important: keep reading. Watch how the writers you admire use clauses, conjunctions, and punctuation. Copy their styles to see what your book would sound like using their methods. Play.

At the risk of angering indie authors everywhere, I suggest you look for your best examples of these rules applied correctly in books, articles, and essays that have been traditionally published. Lord, no, editors in traditional houses aren’t right all the time, but more eyes have examined the writing and the more egregious errors have been winnowed out.

And don’t rely on Grammarly or other so-called editing bots. (Yes, I can start a sentence with “and,” thank you.) They don’t know what a complete sentence is, either.

Or when it’s okay not to use one. The grammar you can ignore if you want to, and why—that’s the kind of knowledge you really need!

How did you learn “the rules”? Share your strategies!




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Commas and how to use them (Part 1)

Do you need the Oxford Comma?Hi! Back from an extended adventure. I’ve missed being part of the blogging community.

Below, I’ve shared the first of a really, really comprehensive set of rules about using commas from over at the Story Empire Blog.

I personally love commas; they control emphasis and sentence rhythm and serve as simple traffic signs to tell readers which part of a sentence they’re currently in and when they are changing directions. I’ve posted a bunch about commas on this blog because I love them so much (for example, in “What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?”

And “Commas Control Emphasis. Here’s How!”

My own experience teaching college writing for 25 years led me to believe that reducing the number of “rules” people have to remember is better than trying to explain everything in great detail. Rules tend to make our eyes glaze over.

So, in What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?, I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the missing comma after “post” in this sentence and the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:

  • After introductory elements (usually)
  • Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
  • In direct address (always)
  • Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of hree or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)

I note that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it. Observance of that caution will eliminate a lot of commas between nouns and their verbs!

Stroll over to Story Empire to check out Parts I and II of this post on this most useful and most misunderstood punctuation mark!

Story Empire

Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.

What is a comma? What does it do?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’

The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.

One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.

Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it…

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“That” or “Which”? What Would You Choose?

Buble quote speech on cloud space for text

A New Yorker editor writing in the Times Literary Supplement debates a grammar textbook writer! Loads of fun. I personally think the “which” in the sentence under scrutiny should be “that.” It clearly refers to the “sourness” and “relentlessness,” and yes, these are appositives, and yes, the point following “which” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Do you agree?

Aren’t words a hoot?

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How Much “Grammar” Do You Really Need?

Put Your Editing Nightmares to Bed!

Across the online landscape for writers, there’s a lot of anxiety about producing that error-free query, synopsis, or draft. With reason—the first letter in “professional” is “p” for “perfect.” There’s no wiggle room on this one, is there? It’s got to be capital-R Right.Sad Editing!

As someone who taught college writing for 25 years and as a published novelist, I’ve been on the front lines of the effort to spread “good grammar.” The fact is, the whole question of what’s Right is more complicated than you think.

In the next few posts, I’m going to make an argument that we don’t need to obsess quite as much as we do. In fact, there are some “grammar rules” we can even trash!

Yes, You Have to be Able to Edit Your Work. . . .

I’m not for one minute telling you that your command of English syntax and usage is not important. It’s vital. But writers can all too easily get bogged down on trivia and even on myths (“OMG! I ended a sentence with a preposition! :-0”). One common cause of writer’s block is thinking that every comma is radioactive, ready to explode and destroy the known universe if mishandled. So for us writers, a little bit of a reality check is a good thing!

Today’s topic: What is good grammar? Answer: Depends on whom you ask.

(Yep, whom you ask. Why? Because it’s the object of the verb “ask.” Eeek! Relax. Nine times out of ten, “who” would be just fine in that line. Hang around; later I’ll explain why.)

Linguists, people who study how languages work, generally agree on three things: Continue reading


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Comma Power

I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.

I had an intuitive understanding of this power from my manipulation of my own prose as a fiction writer. But I credit Martha Kolln’s textbook, Rhetorical Grammar, for making concrete, as an object of explicit study, what my instinctive ear told me. I never succeeded in passing on to many students a real, self-conscious understanding of how vital such a simple little mark can be to communicating precisely what we want readers to hear: there never seemed to be enough time to think much about style in the classes I taught. But if I had it to do over again, I would indulge myself by finding that time. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, but by golly, punctuation is a tool! We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning (a simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite). But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and in this regard, the comma’s a tough little drill sergeant, lining up every word in its place.

So: some disquisitions on commas. Rather, on what I think is going on with commas, with thanks for Kolln for systematizing these observations for me.

Today, emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:

There is in fact a reason for what happened.

Now add the commas in the most obvious places, around the “interrupter,” which grammar books tell us commas should, actually, set off:

There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.

To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the second sentence, as in all uses of commas in this way, the emphasis is cast on the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads

There IS, in FACT, . . .

So we get increased attention to the “facticity” of what’s being claimed. The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.

But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence, I would assert, in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,

There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.

This effect is, in part, due to what Kolln calls the “it cleft,” which I’ll investigate in a later post. But the commas hammer home the shift to emphasis on “REAson,” telling readers that this reason is going to be the focus of the ensuing follow-up.

I want to look more in upcoming posts at the comma’s power to break up sentences and direct utterance as words transfer from page to mind. For now, do you have examples of how commas control words in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?


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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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