Monday, June 29, 2009

Five Comma Rules for Essay Writing

As you become more able to express your ideas clearly and in sufficient depth, you will probably also become more adept at catching your own mechanics errors. This post is focused on one type of punctuation that serves several useful purposes and in the end makes it easier for your reader to understand you--the comma.

Here are the five situations in which you should use a comma:
1. In a compound sentence before the coordinating conjunction
2. To set off introductory elements, even a single word, from the main clause
3. To separate items in a series, following the A, B, and C model
4. To set off interrupting elements in the middle of the sentence
5. When two adjectives come before a noun

1. Compound sentences in fact don't always have a coordinating conjunction, what at our school we refer to as the FANBOYS (an acronym for the conjunctions thus used: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). That's because two independent clauses can be joined with a semicolon instead. However, when you do use the conjunction, it requires a comma. I call this the "married couple" rule for commas, as in, "The conjunction and the comma are a married couple. Put the comma with its spouse."

2. When you have an introductory word, phrase, or dep. clause ahead of your main clause, separate the two parts with a comma, so that the reader can easily follow your ideas as the sentence unwinds. This can begin to seem silly with single words such as "Then," or "Now," but for the present, follow the rule, so that you can become attuned to the general need for the comma there.

3. Believe it or not, there's a bit of controversy about the serial comma, since some stylistic experts feel quite strongly about which way to do it, as you come to the last item in your series. Follow the A, B, and C approach (with the comma before the last element--before the simple conjunction actually) for now, and as you become more confident as a writer, you can decide if you need that last comma or not.

4. Interrupting elements--what are those? Typically, they are phrases (or words) that could be placed elsewhere, but are being set here for emphasis, and require commas to keep the sentence's ideas clear. The key with these commas is that a writer must put one at the beginning and the end of the interrupting element.

Here are a few examples, some simple, some more complicated:

Martin Luther King, a civil rights activist, was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
Some in the movement criticized him; King decided, therefore, that he would write an essay to explain why he had been involved in the activities for which he was jailed.

He wrote a now-famous letter to other clergymen to explain why, under the circumstances, he had felt it necessary to lead protests in Birmingham at that time.

Some possible interrupting elements that might require commas include the following: appositives, conjunctive adverbs ("therefore" is one of them), restrictive clauses, and prepositional phrases. There are, of course, others.

One last important note about using interrupting commas. You will know you have placed the commas properly if everything inside the two commas could be pulled away, and the rest of the sentence still would make sense. The examples above pass this test.

5. Use a comma to separate two adjectives that come before a noun. This can be tricky, since sometimes one adjective really modifies the next adjective. If you can read the sentence with just one of the adjectives, and each time it makes sense, then you need the comma.

Example: He wore a fashionable, sporty outfit to the party.

BTW: Don't stack up more than two adjectives before a noun! It gets clunky.

I give you these guidelines with the understanding that, as with many such "rules," this advice is important to learn, but that gradually you may find you don't always need a comma in every case. What matters is that you know when a comma is technically called for, so that if you decide to leave it out, you know why stylistically it is acceptable, and that you are not creating confusion in so doing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reading in Prep for Writing

If you are reading a short story as assigned, here are reminders about the steps.

1. Find the story by following the link. Read it there, print it from there, or capture it and paste into a Word doc to read and/or print. At this stage, it doesn't matter if you print it out or read it on the computer.
2. Note around 5 vocab words you find, and look them up so you can see which definition makes most sense in that context. You can write or type this.
3. Be prepared to discuss the story, ask questions about it, and write on it.

Note: If at any time you find the link doesn't work, Google the title and see if you can find it at another location. Let me know if you have any troubles beyond that.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Definition of Writing--GRP

If only "writing" were just a task involving putting words down on the paper (or typing onto the screen). In fact, most students (and some adults) believe that this is the only step involved in writing. However, effective writing usually requires three skills:

1. Generate and express ideas. This is mostly where the "writing" part happens.

2. Revise. Revisit the writing after some time has passed if possible. Re-read. Re-think. Rework it for a different order of information, perhaps different choices of examples, clarity of expressed ideas. At times this requires re-reading source materials or searching for more information to include in a research paper. This revision step often takes more than one sitting, and some writers find it hard to ever stop revising their work.

3. Proofread it. This step can happen more than once as well; some writers move back and forth between 2 and 3 several times. Regardless, the last step a writer should take, before submitting the work to the teacher, editor, boss, or etc., is to proofread it carefully. One strategy for careful proofreading involves reading it aloud to yourself, either in your head or vocally, depending on what you are free to do. When you read your work aloud, remember to go slowly, and it can help to read it like a robot, with a strange accent, or while touching each word as you say it. This makes you focus on each word on the page, rather than on the ideas being expressed.

Some other steps to consider when in the generating and revision stages include talking about your writing to someone familiar with the subject (for feedback and ideas) and outlining what you have already drafted.

"What?!" you ask, aghast. "Outline AFTER you write?"

Yes. It can be more helpful to outline what you have created and then examine the outline for order and logic as well as balance of examples, etc. This doesn't preclude brainstorming or outlining before step 1. Some teachers require outlines before the essay topic is approved. Whether you do the pre-writing outline or not, identifying what you have created, idea by idea, can help you see if the logic flows, if you have left something important out, or if you may need more information. This outline can be jotted down on scratch paper--it's only for you.

So the GRP method of writing, the real representation of what is meant by writing, is a system you have been learning and will continue to improve in, throughout your writing experiences in high school, college, and your professional life.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Avoiding Skeleton

Here's a snippet from an "essay" that shows up on one of those "buy a paper" sites on the internet:

"Now I'm going to write about where Pip, a boy from a very humble background meets Miss Havisham, a rich but eccentric lady and how Charles Dickens wants the reader to feel sympathetic towards Pip."

Lesson 2: This opening to a paper on Great Expectations is pathetic.
Lesson 3: Announcing what you are about to do in an essay is exposing the structural elements of your paper, which is like showing your skeleton.

And we all know that if people can see your skeleton, it's baaaaaad. Blech!

So that's why I strongly urge you to avoid "skeleton phrases." No one wants to see the structure of your writing sticking out from the ideas.

Not only do students sometimes announce what they are about to write on, but also they use skeletal language for situations such as these:

Another example of when Smedley reveals his lack of intelligence is when--

"'Gee whillikers, Bob. Is this a bomb?' Smedley asked as he pushed a red button on the bundle of wires that protruded from the dynamite sticks." This quotes shows how little sense Smedley actually possesses.

When you find you have used skeleton wording, you can often remove it and just fix the sentence so it's complete. In the earlier example, it would read: "Smedley reveals his lack of intelligence when he . . ." and in the latter, after the quoted passage, the writer needs only, "Clearly, he possesses little common sense."

"Just say 'No' to skeleton!"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Effective Formal Writing--Some Basic Thoughts

Anyone writing for an academic class needs to know the standard expectations for writing in that subject's style. For example, a paper for a history assignment is somewhat different from one for English class.

Formal English writing, that is, the type used for composing essays, has certain rules and don'ts which, when a writer is fully aware of them, make it easier for the student to create papers that meet the mark.

In fact, if you remove, replace, or avoid constructions with the following words or elements, you automatically write more formally, and can then focus mainly on smoothness and clear content:

Rules of organization:
Clear statement of your overall idea
One subtopic per paragraph
Specific examples, instances, proof, and evidence
The expectation that the reader is reasonably intelligent

"Don'ts" in choosing language and punctuation:
No contractions ("Do not use 'don't.'")
No exclamation marks or question marks (enough said!!)
No slashes or dashes (these are not part of formal writing--for now)

Avoid Nasty No-No's:
you (second person pronoun, all forms)

mom, dad, kid, guy
a lot, lots, cute
fun, funny, stuff

good, bad
nice, beautiful
thing, things

get, got, gotten
really, very
stuff, how

These words and phrases suffer from one or more of the following problems. They are either too casual (colloquial language), too vague, or too frequently used. One need only look up "thing" in the dictionary to discover that it can stand for any noun. That is a powerful example of its lack of specificity. (Just so you know, something, nothing, anything, and everything are words that work well and have meaning in their context. Use them!)

Having stated all these strict guidelines, I want you to remember this: you write various documents for various purposes. Just because these elements are not acceptable in an essay doesn't mean you can't use them at all. They work fine in an email or when talking with others. Simply avoid them if you are writing for a school subject.

Next: the concept of skeleton (woooh! spooky!!)