Thursday, August 11, 2005

The two comma rules you need to know

Grammar is like golf, I tell people who ask me about getting better at it. You need to do it all the time. To be a good grammarian you have to work at it every day and practice it. If you don't, you'll lose it. In that way it is very different from riding a bike.

But memorizing the rules, keeping track of the guidelines, knowing the style preferences of whatever manual you choose to follow, is a daunting task for the average business writer. Heck, it's a daunting task for me, and I write every day.

So I try to boil down the most important grammar rules to the ones that will be needed the most by business writers. That way, today's multi-tasking workforce only has to be comfortable with Grammar's Greatest Hits list to make its writing as professional as it can be.

This post is about the rule on the top of the list. This rule will guide you to properly placing a good number of the commas you will use.

Correct comma use boils down to identifying essential and non-essential clauses. (Ring a grammar school bell?)

Knowing the difference is not really hard, especially with the memory tricks I'll share. And once you identify the different types of clauses, you will know exactly when to use a comma and when to leave it out.

Baby steps first. A clause is a group of related words that contains a subject (a noun) and a predicate, which is the part of the sentence that tells you what the subject does or what state of being the subject is in. In other words, it has a verb in it. It's a complicated definition for a very simple idea. It looks like this:

Stacy has handled the pressure of her new responsibilities well.

Stacy is the subject and has handled is the predicate. Got it?

Take another baby step forward.

An independent clause expresses a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence. A dependent clause does not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence. (I remember this by saying, "It is dependent on the rest of the sentence for meaning.")

Dependent clauses are the ones that have the comma rules tied to them for this post.

Okay, let's do essential clauses first.

An essential clause is a dependent clause that cannot be omitted from the sentence without changing the meaning of the main clause. Essential clauses ARE NOT set off by commas.


The magazine that came yesterday contains some stunning photographs.

How can you tell this is essential to the meaning? Take out that came yesterday and read the sentence again. What magazine are you referring to? There are lots of magazines on the table, so your meaning isn't clear. But adding the clause tells me which one you mean and is essential to my understanding your point.

Here's the memory trick:

Think of commas as tourniquets--adding them here would cut off the supply of crucial information to the rest of the sentence, just like blood flow would be cut off to an appendage.

Hey, I watch ER, so you'll have to forgive the gore.

So what about non-essential clauses?

This is a dependent clause that adds descriptive information but could be omitted without changing the meaning of the main clause. Nonessential clauses ARE set off by commas.


Her latest CD, which is an artistic departure, hit the charts in the Top 10.

The dependent clause here is added information. I know which CD the writer means because of the word "latest" in the sentence. So it's not essential to the meaning.

The tourniquet analogy will help you to remember this rule here. We can cut off this information with commas (word tourniquets) because it's not vital to keeping the main message alive. The main clause doesn't need the oxygenated blood supply to keep it alive. So this clause could wither and die.

This is a hard-and-fast rule and no one can argue the commas you use in these instances. There are subjective comma usage issues which cause lots of arguments, and I'll post about those in the future.

If you're looking for a good resource to all things grammar, go get a Gregg Reference Manual. I've had one since college and I wouldn't write from home without it. You'll have all the rules and definitions within an arm's reach.

But for now, become dependent on the tourniquet analogy because it's essential to you using commas correctly, which no one should call a non-essential skill. At least, not in my book.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Can't spell your way out of a wet paper bag?

At the start of my writing seminars, I always ask the attendees what they want to learn in our time together. What is one goal they have?

I get lots of great answers and, thankfully, it pertains to the material I have prepared in their coil-bound workbooks.

But almost every time, I have one attendee who offers something like this: "I am a terrible speller, and I think if I could be better at it I'd be a better writer."

I love this comment more than any other in my entire workshop. Because I know I am going to make that person's day with research-proven information that may shed their anxiety and set them free.

"Okay," I say. "Let's deal with this one right off the bat. Here's the honest truth: Great spellers are born and not made."

There is silence in the room.

"Good spellers are good visual memory learners. It has nothing to do with intelligence, but a certain kind of learning skill some of us are born with when we enter this world," I say, citing the experts who have studied it.

I go on to explain to them that you can get on the Internet and find software and all kinds of things you can buy that promise to increase your visual memory. But I don't recommend these things to help with spelling, because it's not necessary.

There are other things you can do to compensate.

First, know this. If you were not born with the gift of strong visual memory and spelling is a struggle for you, you learn very well in other ways. And you can be a great writer. John Updike, a great writer, was an admitted horrible speller. What Updike did to overcome it is this: Each time he looked up a word in the dictionary (he wrote his best works before we had spell checkers), he put a little ink mark next to it.

When he looked up the word three times (and he could keep track with his ink marks), he wrote the word down and spelled it over and over until he memorized it.

You could do the same thing. This is what all those who struggled with spelling did to get through elementary school. They memorized the words they use the most frequently.

You can also rely on your spell checker. Because I firmly believe spell check was invented by an incredibly intelligent computer geek who couldn't spell his way out of a wet paper bag in grade school. (I didn't say "his or her way out of a wet paper bag" because there is a really good chance it was a guy, the tech industry being dominated by men and all.)

Even elementary school educators, whom I have talked with extensively about this topic, agree that strong spelling skills are increasingly less important with the proliferation of computers and spell check. (I will tell you not to trust spell check in a future post on proofreading, however.)

Professors I work with balk at me when I share my comments on spelling and its connection to visual memory learning. "People are just lazy," they say, "and don't want to look words up." Or, "It's because people don't read anymore."

Research doesn't back these comments up. It does back up the visual memory skills, however.

So, you spelling-bee-champ-wanna-bees, take note. And take comfort. You may only be a mediocre natural speller, but you can be a great writer in spite of it.

How long should a paragraph be?

My friend Delanie in Atlanta checked out my blog and emailed me. After we bonded over the original 1959 series of Nancy Drew books (Delanie still has the entire set in hardback), she asked me a great question.

"How long should a paragraph be?" she questioned.

I'm glad she asked. Because this is another area where academia has steered you wrong. The nuns taught me, and I'm sure your teachers taught you, that paragraphs were long. The longer the better. Cover an entire subject in a paragraph and don't start a new paragraph until you change topics. Hence, the topic sentence. (To learn of the appropriateness of topic sentences in business writing today, see my post called "English gathers no moss.")

Well, pack this up with all the other useless, antiquated writing practices you've learned in your life.

The new paragraph looks much leaner and trimmer than its predecessor. So much so that the return key should be your new best friend.

The rule for today's business reader (and I hesitate to use the word rule, because so much changes so fast) is four lines maximum. Maybe you have to go to five or six if you're not at the end of a sentence after four lines.

But one-sentence paragraphs, two-line paragraphs, three and four-line paragraphs are the way you should go. Even if you wouldn't normally put a paragraph there.

You could say the new rule is anywhere you put a period you could put a paragraph.


White space. It is your friend. You should use it and over use it. White space is the most valuable tool reader-friendly communication can have.


Ever get an e-mail from someone who starts typing in the upper left hand corner and keeps typing and typing and typing through the entire screen until there is an endless list of words from sea to shining sea?

What's your impression of that email? Of the writer? Do you really want to read all that stuff? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you think the writer spent any time at all thinking about what was being written? Or is the writer just rambling?

That's how everyone else feels, too.

Short paragraphs are essential in email because reading text on a computer screen is such a strain on the eye. White space breaks it up and invites the eye in. Short paragraphs are valuable in any other printed material, too. Because paragraph breaks give the reader a chance to stop, pause, take in the information, and then move on. It aids in understanding and absorption of the information.

So give that return key a hit, or two--to create white space between the paragraphs. Giving your text a break will give your reader a break, which will put you on a break-neck pace to reader-friendly print communication.