ALWAYS REMEMBER THIS ABOUT GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION: The rules regarding this element of language - the same rules about tenses, structure, commas and periods that people so often dread learning - do not exist because of random chance. The rules exist for one reason -- because English is an extremely complex language. Indeed, it is so intricate that words alone cannot convey all the meanings and ideas the language is capable of transmitting.
Think of it like this: English is insanely difficult. It's got hundreds upon hundreds of words, each with its own horrid little classification (article, objective pronoun, indefinite pronoun, conjunction, noun, predicate, gerund) and all kinds of words that describe how these elements are put together and how they behave (phrase, clause, sentence, compound sentence, etc). Each type of word and each method of combining words has its own rules. We call the study of words and structures the study of GRAMMAR. Why is its important? Because the language is SO capable of wrapping itself around the most complicated and difficult of ideas. It's beautifully flexible and delightfully PERFECT for conveying fine/precise meaning. The rules exist to ALLOW people to take advantage of everything the language can offer, not to HINDER its use. Structure it correctly, use the right words in the right places, and you'll find there's almost no idea, no thought, that English cannot represent.
And punctuation fits into this as well, because the subtlety in the language isn't just conveyed by WORDS. English is intricate enough to require SEVERAL signals to tell the reader the EXACT meaning of phrases, expressions and sentences. Punctuation is somewhat like a CODE that writers use to make certain their ideas come across precisely. Here's a simple demonstration.
Note first how the tremendous array of words and structures available in English help people to explain EXACTLY what they mean. Consider the subtle meaning in each of the following:
My stomach's growling.
I haven't had lunch.
I want food.
Let's get a burger.
Sure, I'll have a chocolate.
Now throw in punctuation and see how meaning gets even MORE precise.
I haven't had lunch . . .
I want food; I'm famished!
My stomach's growling?
If you're wondering what the point of all this is, it's this: Learn the rules that surround English. Don't think of them as nuisance items that are in the way and annoying to learn. If you know the rules, you can take control of one of the most powerful tools of communication in history. If you do not learn the rules, you will never, ever express what you are capable of thinking. Even worse, without using the language to its full extent, you may harm yourself. The more you stretch English, the more you work with it, the more you find that this language goes places most people have never imagined. You'll find unusual words that - wow! - convey EXACTLY what you mean. And if you know the rules of grammar and punctuation, you'll know just how to USE those words - even difficult words - in ways that permit the reader to understand as well.
On the flip side, bog yourself down in poor grammar and bad punctuation, refuse to grasp the language, and your own thoughts will sink to whatever level of English you achieved. You'll never be able to convey your ideas and feelings fully.
This page is mostly about common problems in punctuation. Often, if a person can grasp punctuation, the rules of grammar kind of fall into place as well. So here goes . . .
Commas sometimes get bad press because they are often used improperly. However, the most common mistakes are easily corrected. All you have to know to work the comma correctly is how sentences function. You have to know a LITTLE about grammar.
Now, everybody knows that an English sentence always contains a subject (noun) and a verb (predicate).
"Thomas Jefferson (subject) farmed (verb)."
But what if you write two different sentences with two different subjects and two different verbs and then link them up with the words "and," "but," "for," or "or"?
Say, for example, you write that yes, Thomas Jefferson farmed, but Alexander Hamilton studied law. Now you've got two subjects to deal with (Jefferson and Hamilton) and two verbs (farmed and studied). What do you do in a case like this?
PUT A COMMA IN FRONT OF "but."
Thomas Jefferson farmed, but Alexander Hamilton studied law.
Tornadoes, blizzards, and grasshoppers were common problems on the plains, and settlers dealt with them as best they could.
Paul Revere's midnight ride warned of approaching British soldiers, for Revere understood how to raise an effective alarm. (NOTE: the midnight ride is the first subject, and Revere is the second.)
See how useful that is? The comma is making CLEAR to your reader that TWO DIFFERENT individuals are at work. That comma is working like a code. Check this out:
"He signed the Declaration of Independence, but he was too chicken, too afraid of the British, to put his name on the document."
See what the comma is telling you in the sentence above? The sentence refers to "he" twice. The presence of the comma tells the reader that each "he" is a different person. If there was no comma, it would be the same individual who signed but who was also afraid. Like this:
"He signed the Declaration of Independence but he was too chicken, too afraid of the British, to put his name on the document."
Whoa! Without a comma, this is a MUCH more complex situation than is described in the first sentence. Without a comma, the reader has to conclude that it was the SAME INDIVIDUAL who signed but who was too scared to put his name down. So what happened? One has to conclude, in the absence of a comma, that the individual signed a fake name. Very James Bond.
See why a comma is so important?
WARNING! COMMA ALERT! COMMON COMMA MISTAKE!
Be careful when working commas into sentences with "and," "but," "for," and "or."
The language can be sneaky. Occasionally, you will encounter or write sentences that LOOK like a link-up between two different sentences with two different subjects and verbs but aren't really that at all. Like this:
Thomas Jefferson farmed but also studied law.
HA! Notice there's no comma in front of "but" because there's only ONE subject here - Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is the one who farmed and studied. As a result, he doesn't get a comma. TOO BAD!
Henry Grady was a newspaper editor and also
an advocate of the New South.
HOW DO YOU TELL IF YOU'VE GOT ONE THING OR
THE OTHER IN YOUR WRITING?
You have to check.
You have to check carefully. You have to go back over EVERY SENTENCE -
yep - and look at where you've got commas. And then you have to check
EVERY COMMA to make sure each is placed correctly.
That's called EDITING, and it's tedious and frustrating sometimes. But it's the only way to improve your writing.
MORE COMMA USES.
Use the comma to offset introductory phrases. "Phrase" is one of those grammar terms that tells how various words are put together. Without sounding too much like a grammar expert (which I am not), let's just say that a phrase is a group of words that is an important part of a sentence but that is not a sentence itself. Here's the deal: A phrase is like a PIECE of a sentence. It may have a noun. Some phrases even have verbs. What phrases DON'T have is the full set - a subject and a verb together. Phrases aren't playing with a full deck! HA HA HA!
It's easier to see a phrase in a sentence that to try to describe the #$&^#* things. And again, phrases that introduce a sentence should be offset with a comma. Why? Well, for one reason it's easier on the reader. Here the phrases are in red.
In 1804, Alexander Hamilton died in a duel.
During industrialization, workers were dismayed to find declining opportunities for skilled labor.
BUT, what if your introductory statement has a subject and a verb in it? Like what if your introductory statement says "When industrialization (subject) developed (verb) . . . workers were dismayed to find declining opportunities . . . "
NO BIG DEAL. If your introductory statement has a subject and a verb, that means it's called an INTRODUCTORY CLAUSE. What's a clause? A group of words with a subject and verb. Some clauses can stand alone as sentences. (You know English always has more than one word to describe anything.)
An INTRODUCTORY CLAUSE cannot.
It HAS to have a COMMA. WHY? Quite simply because it has been weakened, so to speak, by its opening word. See, "When industrialization developed" is NOT at sentence. BUT, "Industrialization developed?" THAT'S A SENTENCE!
ALWAYS check your writing to make sure you've not left an introductory clause as a sentence.
Because George Pullman refused to address worker concerns, his workers went on strike.
When Virginians discovered tobacco, they found their source of wealth.
MORE COMMA USES!
Use the comma to offset phrases that break into or interrupt the flow of the sentence. Again, this helps your reader. Here's something to note as well. If you're going to use a comma on one of these phrases, use it on BOTH SIDES of the phrase. Phrases must either be TOTALLY surrounded or not surrounded at all. Phrases are weird.
Thomas Jefferson, a Virginian, liked to farm.
George Pullman, a rich man, owned a train car factory.
George Washington, when angry, could swear eloquently.
WARNING! COMMON COMMA MISTAKE!
Be careful what you offset, BECAUSE NOT EVERY INTERRUPTION NEEDS COMMAS. It all depends on what you're trying to say. This is particularly important when working with interruptions that have WHO and WHICH as their first words. LOOK OUT on these because incorrect comma usage can make your writing sound VERY STRANGE.
HERE'S WHAT I MEAN:
British soldiers who wore red were easy targets for American guns.
British soldiers, who wore red, were easy targets for American guns.
See? The first sentence implies that there were all kinds of colors worn by British soldiers, and it's only the guys in red who were in danger of being shot. The second one tells us that ALL British soldiers wore red and were therefore all in danger.
SOMETIMES messing up the comma in this type of situation makes your writing unintentionally funny.
Hamilton's nose which was long was said to be elegant. (Implies he has more than one nose and the long nose was the elegant one.)
Hamilton's nose, which was long, was said to be elegant. (Ahhh, things are back to normal. One long, elegant nose.)
BUT HEY! you're saying. What's wrong with writing something like this:
Now, once you master the basic uses of the comma, start putting it to work. Start writing comma-sophisticated sentences. Like these:
Thomas Jefferson, a man of principle, firmly believed that rural life was far superior to urban, and those who disagreed with him learned, in 1800, how strongly he held these views.
Now, there's a lot more to know about the comma. There are several guides to using it that you might want to study. Come and see me if you want to know more.
A common punctuation problem is found on 's. When do you use it? When not?
Again, it's easy. See that? It's easy. The 's on it's means I am saying "it is." You ONLY use 's on "it's" when you're saying "it is." VERY IMPORTANT: If you want to say "its car," or "Thomas Jefferson's horse wore a saddle on ITS back," you don't use 's.
BUT: On every case but "it," the apostrophe is used to indicate possession. Doug's dog. Thomas Jefferson's house. The cowboy's song. The explorer's journey.
Also, you're=you are. YOUR on the other hand, means "your book," or "your idea."
They're=they are. AS OPPOSED TO:
Their="their car, their house, their idea, their interpretation, their pigs, their boat." It belongs to them.
There=a place. Thomas Jefferson lived there. Hamilton lived there. Where's George Washington? Over there.
Use it only to separate two sentences. Think of this as something you can use in place of the ole' "comma and" rule discussed earlier.
Thomas Jefferson studied law; his instruction took place in Virginia.
Paul Revere rode quickly towards Concord; his horse was getting tired.
BUT, you ask. If you can separate sentences with a semi-colon, why bother with periods? Why not just use semi-colons all over the place?
BECAUSE YOU CAN'T. THE SEMI-COLON HAS CERTAIN RESTRICTIONS.
If you want to use it, the two sentences you're going to apply it to have got to have some sort of link. That is, the second sentence should MODIFY the first in some way. Look at Paul Revere above. The second sentence about his horse FILLS US IN about what's going on in the first sentence. He's riding, and his horse is getting tired.
What you DON'T want to do is something like this: put a semi-colon between two sentences that have NOTHING to do with each other.
The Gilded Age extended from 1877 to 1900; I really like mint chip ice cream.
My dog eats Kibbles and Bits; to be sure, Mark Twain was an anti-imperialist in the late 1800s.
You want, instead: The Gilded Age extended from 1877-1900; it was a time of invention and exploitation.
I really like mint chip ice cream; it is delicious.
My dog eats Kibbles and Bits; she also eats the carpet.
Don't ever switch tenses in mid-essay, or mid-sentence, or mid-thought. DON'T SWITCH TENSES. It just sounds bad. If you're going to write in past tense, fine. STAY THERE. Think if Abraham Lincoln had constantly switched tenses in the Gettysburg Address. He'd have sounded terrible. He'd have sounded like this:
"Four score and seven years ago, our fathers will bring forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we were engaged in a great Civil War . . . We will be met on a great battlefield of that war. We were met to dedicate a portion of it. . . . It will be altogether fitting and proper that we are to have done this."
See? Switching tenses is not good. Such a practice makes your writing confusing, sloppy, unacceptable, and altogether unpleasant.
There's so much more, too! The best way to improve your writing is to EDIT. And KEEP EDITING. Find your mistakes and correct them. That's how you learn.
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