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In most sentences, getting the subject and verb to agree is easy. However, three tricky types of sentences can turn this simple task into a complicated feat that requires three grammar handbooks and a call to your old English teacher.

1. Subjects connected by or

Subjects connected by and are easy: they take plural verbs.

The dean and faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

However, in sentences with subjects connected by or (and in either/or, neither/nor sentences), the order of the sentence dictates the verb, with the verb matching the subject closest to it.

Neither the dean nor the faculty members are creating the new hiring guidelines.

Neither the faculty members nor the dean is creating the new hiring guidelines.

2. Sentences with words between the subject and verb

The goal of our Healthy Workplace Now and after-hours exercise programs is to reduce employee absenteeism.

It may sound strange to hear the words programs and is next to each other, but the above sentence is correct. The subject of the sentence is goal: The goal is to reduce employee absenteeism. It doesn’t matter how many words are between the subject and verb or whether those words are singular or plural.

3. Sentences with indefinite subjects

The following pronouns take singular verbs, even if they imply a sense of being plural:

  • anyone
  • anybody
  • either
  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • no one
  • someone
  • something

Everybody who applied for promotions is required to attend Monday’s meeting.

No one from the Kentucky or Tennessee offices is invited to the meeting.

If each stands alone as a subject, it takes a singular verb. If it isn’t standing alone, the verb choice will vary depending on whether the expression means “each one” or “both.”

Each of the committees has submitted a final report. (stands alone, so it’s singular)

Each manager and assistant manager is required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means each one, so it’s singular)

The manager and assistant manager each are required to attend next month’s sensitivity training. (means both, so it’s plural)

Other indefinite pronouns are more complicated. For example, some grammar handbooks still claim that the word none means “not one” and should always be singular. However, that interpretation has been disputed for centuries, with many distinguished grammarians pointing out that the meaning is closer to “not any.” Some sources that concur on the idea of none being plural in many uses:

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (dating back to the 1926 version)
  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage
  • The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style

The misconception about none is similar to the classroom grammar myths outlined in a previous post except that it actually appears in some grammar handbooks, so I will call it a mythinterpretation.

Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, calls the issue “none sense” and gives the clearest explanation:

If it suggests “none of them,” it’s plural: None of the fans are fighting. None are excited enough.

If it suggests “none of it,” it’s singular: None of the bout was seen in Pittsburgh. None was worth broadcasting.

Note: When you really do mean “not one,” it’s better to say “not one” and use a singular verb: Not one of Holyfield’s fingers was broken.

I hope these last three blog posts have helped your sentences to be more agreeable.

Next time: Don’t talk to me! (Correct use of you)

References

Burchfield, R.W., ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford, 1996. Print.

Butler, et al. Correct Writing. 6th ed. Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1995. Print.

Garner, Bryan A. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York: Oxford, 2000. Print.

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1994. Print.

Lutz, Gary, and Diane Stevenson. Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2010. Print.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 2002.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Putnam, 1996. Print.

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Rock bands and sports teams cause chaos among grammarians. In the last post, I described how collective nouns — words like jury that refer to a group of people acting as one unit — take singular pronouns. (They also take singular verbs.) Therefore, these sentences are correct:

The band released its latest CD.

The team posted its injury report on the Internet.

But what about these sentences?

The Rolling Stones released its latest CD.

The Pittsburgh Steelers posted its injury report on the Internet.

They sound terrible! And good luck finding guidance in grammar books, most of which avoid the tricky issue of whether the names of rock bands and sports teams are singular or plural.

However, other reference books have declared usage rules for the fields of sports and entertainment, where the names of collective units usually sound plural. (A note to my international readers: These are guidelines for American English. The British have a different outlook on collective nouns.)

The Associated Press Stylebook offers this somewhat contradictory entry:

Team names and musical groups that are plural take plural verbs. The Yankees are in first place. The Jonas Brothers are popular. Team or group names with no plural forms also take plural verbs: The Miami Heat are battling for third place…. Many singular names take singular verbs: Coldplay is on tour. Boston is favored in the playoffs. The Cardinal is in the NCAA tournament.

Linguistic nitpicker William Safire wrote a column on the topic after receiving queries about how to handle situations where teams like the Miami Heat or Colorado Avalanche play teams with plural names:

I see a headline atop The Washington Post: “Jazz Beats Bulls,” with the verb construing the first team, from Utah, as singular. Had the game gone the other way, however, the headline would have read “Bulls Beat Jazz,” construing the Chicago team as plural.

His verdict? Writers should “go with the natural sound of the language. If the team name ends in s, go with the plural verb…. If not, construe it as singular.”

However, most journalists shun the idea of mixing and matching. Rolling Stone magazine disregards the AP stylebook and uses all band names as plurals, as evidenced by these examples from the magazine’s web site:

On a Saturday night in late February, Coldplay are in their North London headquarters, listening to mixes of new songs. 

U2 are legendary for their heartfelt connection with concert audiences. 

Sports Illustrated and ESPN use plural references for all teams, even the Heat and the Jazz.

That usage clashes with the rules for corporate names. General Motors and Dunkin’ Donuts are singular entities that take singular verbs and pronouns even though their names end in s. Therefore, all of these are correct:

General Motors is firing three executives.

The Packers are firing three trainers.

The Foo Fighters are firing three crew members.

What’s the difference? Maybe having the word the in front of band and team names makes the plural version a natural choice.

Or maybe it’s because people don’t stand and cheer at the end of a board meeting.

Additional reading

For more information about the controversy over team names (and more details about British English rules on the subject), read this post from Minnesota Public Radio News that uses the Minnesota Wild hockey team as an example:

Grammar Gone Wild

References

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2011. New York: Basic Books, 2011. Print.

Robicheau, Paul. “A Beautiful Night for U2. Rolling Stone. 26 March 2011. Web. 4 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

Safire, William. “Singular Heat?” No Uncertain Terms. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. 273-276. Print.

Serpick, Evan. “In the Studio: Coldplay.” Rolling Stone. 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 5 Jan. 2012. (Read story here.)

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What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world

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My recent post, “Lies Your English Teacher Told You,” received an overwhelming response, triggering more than 54,000 hits and hundreds of comments.

As I expected, the idea of not ending a sentence with a preposition generated the most passionate responses, so let me review some key topics:

1. My credentials

Although most readers were supportive, a few questioned my ability to proclaim that writers can end sentences with prepositions. I don’t expect you to trust an unknown blogger. Here are reputable sources that agree with my view:

Oxford Dictionaries

Merriam Webster Online

“Contrary to popular belief, it is not a mortal sin to end a sentence with a preposition, as long as the sentence sounds natural and its meaning is clear. . . . It is absolutely antiquated to forbid ending a sentence with a preposition.”

— The Grammar Bible (2004)

The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.”

— Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002)

“A preposition at the end of a sentence can be a sign that the sentence is awkwardly constructed. The branch office is where she was at. However, if a preposition falls naturally at the end of a sentence, leave it there. (‘I don’t remember which file I saved it under.’)”

— Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition (2009)

Many famous writers have ended sentences with prepositions. Just look at Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare, who ends each stanza with a preposition:

By a sleep to say we end

The heartaches and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.

Who would these fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death–

The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns– puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

2. Grammar vs. style

Although there is no grammar rule about sentence-ending prepositions, some readers aptly pointed out that in some cases they are a matter of style. As mentioned in the earlier handbook example, a sentence that is awkward or unclear with the preposition at the end should be recast.

3. Breaking the rules

Some people mistakenly interpreted the blog post as permission to break writing rules. No! I was clarifying that certain so-called rules are actually myths. Most writing rules are in place to enhance communication, so I don’t advocate abandoning them in workplace writing. Creative writing is another matter.

4. The audience

Even if you feel comfortable ending sentences with prepositions, keep in mind audience preferences. Some of my readers said they are annoyed by such sentences, even if there is no rule about then.  Certainly if you are writing a paper for an instructor or boss who hates sentence-ending prepositions, avoid using them!

5. Evolving language

One Canadian reader pointed out that English seems to evolve faster in the United States. He said that the Canadian journalism stylebook still forbids prepositions at the ends of sentences. I checked the two leading American journalism stylebooks; neither mentions the rule.

6. Practicality

Some readers pointed out that it would be impractical to avoid prepositions at the ends of sentences in certain circumstances, including questions

Where are you from?

and sentences where the preposition is part of a noun or verb:

After hearing the obscene caller on the other end of the phone, I hung up.

6. Lies

A few readers questioned my choice of the word lies in the title. I didn’t mean to suggest a conspiracy by English teachers to deceive students; I think in most cases the propagation of the rules is an honest mistake. In other cases, the teachers are probably trying to get students to avoid lazy habits like starting too many sentences with and. But in the end, I have to question why the teachers didn’t notice the absence of the rules in their textbooks (and the presence of violations of the rules in works by established writers) and yet still pounded the rules into students’ minds so effectively that many years later in my college classroom, the myths are among the few rules students remember consistently.

In school, I had teachers who would forbid students from starting sentences with but or using to be verbs. Such exercises strengthened my writing. However, my teachers always made it clear that the restrictions weren’t permanent rules, merely parts of practice exercises. I’m encouraging today’s teachers to do the same. (Trust me — I know they’re already doing a difficult job for low pay, and I wouldn’t trade places with them!)

7. Examples

A few readers wanted a clearer explanation of split infinitives. An infinitive is to plus a verb:

to walk

to run

to go

I embedded my examples in the lesson itself:

to boldly to

to gently split

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As a college English instructor, I continually have to remove writing myths from my students’ brains. These rules don’t appear in any grammar book, but they are taught year after year.

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you can. The world won’t stop revolving, and your old English teacher can’t argue because there is no such rule. The problem started in England back in 1672 when John Dryden wrote a piece criticizing Ben Jonson for ending a sentence with a preposition. Dryden believed that since the construction wasn’t possible in Latin, it shouldn’t be possible in English.

Clearly, this logic doesn’t make sense: English is its own language. But some people agreed with Dryden and spread the rule around. The issue became a subject of debate. Robert Lowth, a respected academic, wrote in the 1760s that ending a sentence with a preposition was acceptable in “familiar” or everyday writing but that avoiding the construction was “more graceful” for “the solemn and elevated style.”

So there’s no rule against it. One note: Make sure you need the preposition.

NOT: Where’s the new copier at?

INSTEAD: Where’s the new copier?

If you encounter fierce resistance from overzealous followers of the nonexistent but persistent rule, you can recast the sentence, but the result is usually awkward. I saw a funny example of recasting on a greeting card (one that unfortunately used an unnecessary preposition):

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at?

GIRL #2: Never end a sentence with a preposition.

GIRL #1: Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?

You can’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Did your ninth-grade English teacher warn you about starting a sentence with a conjunction? If so, the reason was not that the construction was grammatically incorrect; he or she was just trying to get you to elevate your writing before you hit college. Beginning too many sentences with and or but leads to weak, bland writing. But using such conjunctions sparingly in a document is perfectly legal (unless your ninth-grade teacher is going to read it). If you find yourself using these simple transitions too often, try eliminating each one to see if it was needed in the first place. If some form of transition is needed, try these similar forms:

And: in addition, moreover, furthermore, also

But:  however, in contrast

You can’t start a sentence with because.

This imaginary rule was probably developed by teachers trying to prevent their students from creating sentence fragments. If you write a clause starting with because, it’s easy to mistakenly think you have a sentence:

Because it took all afternoon to write the new proposal.

That fragment looks like a complete sentence because it has a subject and verb; however, it doesn’t express a complete thought. But why is because the only forbidden word? Why not although, when, while, after, if, and a whole host of other words that serve the same purpose? In fact, starting a sentence with because adds sentence variety, a valuable writing technique.

You can’t split an infinitive.

The alleged ban against splitting an infinitive — the word to plus a verb — is another Latin-based idea. In older forms of English, largely rooted in Latin, the infinitive was one word and therefore couldn’t be split. Once the language evolved to include two-word infinitives, writers began splitting, but some grammarians decided that the practice shouldn’t be allowed.

You’ll probably find the rule if you dig up a really old grammar book, but modern ones don’t mention it. If you want to gently split an infinitive, go for it! Your mission is to boldly go where good writers have gone before.

Next time: Everyone agrees that agreement is difficult

REFERENCES

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum.  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution Of ‘Proper’ English, From Shakespeare To ‘South Park.’ New York: Walker & Co., 2009.

“A Brief History of English Usage” from Merriam-Webster Inc.

http://ling.kgw.tu-berlin.de/lexicography/data/B_HIST_EU.html

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Unfortunate fact: Grammar and style books don’t agree about apostrophe use. Even the simplest apostrophe rule is the subject of controversy:

Add an apostrophe and an s to show possession of singular nouns.

I followed up on the client’s request.

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

Some grammar books grant an exception if adding an apostrophe and an s to a name ending in s creates an awkward pronunciation:

Sophocles’ works were required reading in college.

Illinois’ current business climate will affect our decision.

To make it more confusing, the Associated Press style book contradicts what you were taught in school and says to add only the apostrophe to any proper name ending in s. However, this leads to awkward and unrealistic pronunciations:

I borrowed Agnes’ employee manual.

I studied Elvis’ life.

Our company will be affected by Congress’ latest bill.

So unless you’re writing for the Associated Press, use the apostrophe and the s if you would pronounce the extra s in a name.

The Associated Press also has an odd rule saying that even for singular common nouns ending in s, you should add only the apostrophe if the subsequent word begins in s:

I stepped on the boss’s foot.

I stepped on the boss’ stiletto heel.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is more relaxed: unlike the AP manual, it says to use the apostrophe and s for proper names ending in s. However, it offers an exception for names ending in a sibilant sound that follows a vowel and another sibilant. Sounds complicated, but it refers to simple words like Kansas, Texas, and Moses.

Why should you care about the journalism rules if you’re not a journalist? The news stories you read each day in newspapers and magazines or on the Internet are edited according to these alternate punctuation rules, so they may have affected your apostrophe use. Also, maybe your workplace writing includes press releases. So knowing the purpose and audience for your piece of writing is important.

The apostrophe rules for plural nouns — nouns referring to more than one item – are largely undisputed:

Add only an apostrophe to plural words ending in s.

He was docked eight weeks’ pay.

The three agents’ sales for August totaled $8 million.

Add an apostrophe and an s to plural words not ending in s.

The publishing house is adding children’s books to its line.

It’s a real problem

The most common apostrophe problem arises around the word it. The word is a solid, everyday pronoun, so it seems natural to add an apostrophe and an s to make it possessive. “Wrong!” your English teacher screams. Don’t worry — you’re not stupid. It makes perfect sense to add an apostrophe and s just as you would to any other word. However, it’s wrong because its has been corralled into the group of possessive pronouns by a sadistic grammarian.

To understand this tricky word, it’s important to understand that the apostrophe is used to show possession in words that are not usually possessive. For example, a computer is a thing, so the word computer is a noun. But sometimes the word isn’t serving its normal function of being a noun: it is acting as a describing word showing possession:

My computer’s constant beeping drove my coworkers crazy.

In that sentence, beeping is the noun, and computer’s is a describing word. The apostrophe signals to the reader that the word is being used in a different way than expected.

But certain words exist in our language solely to show possession: his, hers, theirs, ours, its. So they don’t need an apostrophe because their usage isn’t changing.

Two easy ways to remember how to do it right:

  1. If you write it’s, you mean it is. Always.
  2. Picture its with other possessive pronouns: his, hers, theirs, ours. You wouldn’t write hi’s or her’s. So keep the apostrophe out of its as a possessive word, even if you think it’s stupid.
More controversy
Disagreement also arises about using an apostrophe for plurals of letters, numbers, abbreviations, and words used as words. Here’s a rundown:
MOST GRAMMAR BOOKS (not all agree)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of words used as words, letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and acronyms/abbreviations. But use only the s for plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many and‘s at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
ASSOCIATED PRESS
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of single letters used as letters. But use only the s to show plurals of numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, words used as words and the plurals of decades:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
NEW YORK TIMES
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. But use only the s for words used as words:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2‘s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVD’s on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990’s.
MODERN LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION (MLA style is used for academic writing in the humanities)
Add an apostrophe and an s to show the plural of letters used as letters. But use only the s for numbers used as numbers, acronyms/abbreviations, and the plural of decades. No specific rule is given for words used as words, but there’s a strong indication to omit the apostrophe:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two B‘s and an A on its marketing scorecard.
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately.
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE (used in the publishing industry and certain academic applications)
Use an apostrophe and an s to form the plural of lowercase letters used as letters and abbreviations containing periods. Use only the s for capital letters used as letters, numbers used as numbers, and the plurals of decades. Also use only the s for words used as words, with possible exceptions for such examples that are awkward or in quotation marks:
The accountant accidentally added some extra 2s to the budget total.
Our company earned two Bs and an A on its marketing scorecard. (Exception: Mind your p’s and q’s.)
You used too many ands at the beginning of your sentences in this report.
Mail out the DVDs on our new product line immediately. (Exception: Even three Ph.D’s couldn’t solve the problem.)
We haven’t updated the company logo since the 1990s.
Confused? You should be. Each set of rules is slightly different. Find out the accepted style in your workplace.*

Next time: Quarrelsome Quotation Marks

Interesting related links

A fun blog that posts examples of misused apostrophes:

http://www.apostropheabuse.com/

An article about the struggle over its vs it’s:

http://www.newsweek.com/1995/11/05/its-academic-or-is-it.html

An article about how punctuation is being lost in the new age of texting:

http://www.newsweek.com/2008/08/01/the-death-of-english-lol.html

A story about how Arkansas struggled with apostrophe use with its name, proposing a bill that became law:

http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/02/27/arkansas_house_to_argue_over_apostrophes/

*Special note: Words used as words, numbers used as numbers, and letters used as letters are usually italicized but not in boldface. However, for purposes of drawing attention to words used as words in my blog, I have chosen to add the boldface.

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There are only about a dozen rules on comma use, but a few are tricky. Let me try to clear things up:

When you list three or more items in a series, separate them with commas.
Standard English rules say to use a comma before the and. To make things confusing, journalism style books say you should never use a comma before the and. (Newspaper editors are stingy with punctuation.) Check to see which style your company prefers. If you are listing only two items in a series, don’t use the comma before and.

I will bring milk, creamer, and sugar to the conference room. (Standard English)
I will bring milk, creamer and sugar to the conference room. (Journalism)
I will bring creamer and sugar to the conference room.

When you are connecting two complete thoughts, put a comma before the and.
This rule also applies to the words but, or, nor, for, so, and yet, but and is the troublemaker because it’s prominent in the first rule above. Take this example:

Group A will attend training in the morning, and Group B will attend in the afternoon.

Each half of the example could stand alone as a complete sentence, so the two thoughts are separated by a comma and a connecting word (conjunction). But don’t forget the conjunction. It’s wrong to say, “Group A will attend training in the morning, Group B will attend in the afternoon.” That’s called a comma splice, and your high school English teacher frowns upon it.

Here’s where the real problem starts. Some business writers put commas with and because of the two rules just mentioned and then get in the habit of throwing in commas any time they see and. However, if a sentence simply contains two verbs and is not expressing two complete thoughts, no comma is needed:

Ted will present his draft of the annual report and then take questions.
The new computer system consolidates the two old servers and increases our networking capabilities.

Believe it or not, those two rules will take care of most of your comma problems. Other than that, where do the commas go?

Here: After an introductory word, phrase, or clause:
Before the boss arrived, my team checked the audio-video equipment for defects.
After the interviewees left the conference room, the management team voted for the top two candidates.
Not here: After a short transitional word or phrase.
Then I realized I was flirting with the boss’s wife.
In time we will expand the product line.

Here: Around the name of a person spoken to directly.
I think your problem, Stephen, is that you use too many commas.

Here: After a mild interjection.
Oh, I don’t know which laptop I like better.
Not here: After a strong interjection.
Damn! I spilled coffee on my keyboard!

Here: Around groups of words that you could remove from the sentence without changing its basic meaning.
My boss, an avid golfer, gets a new set of clubs every Christmas.
Bill Clinton, who was hounded by sex scandals, served two terms as president after serving as governor of Arkansas.
Not here: Around groups of words that are essential to the meaning of the sentence:
Employees who arrive late to work set a bad example for others.
The contracts that arrived on Monday were accidentally shredded.

Here: Around elements of dates and addresses.
The corporate office at 14 S. Market St., Pittsburgh, Pa., will be renovated beginning August 12, 2011, and won’t be finished for 10 years.
Not here: Between the month and year if no day is listed:
I started to work for Computers R Us in August 2010.

Here: Between adjectives (describing words) whose order can easily be changed:
It was a wordy, boring, useless report.
Not here: Between adjectives that need to be in a specific order.
He released the company’s 100-page annual report.

Here: To set up a quote.
According to the incident report, the employee said to the boss, “Shut the hell up!”
Not here: To set up a quote that flows with the sentence.
According to the incident report, the employee said that the boss should “shut the hell up!”

Check your documents to see if you can match each comma to a rule. If not, the comma is probably not needed. There is a technicality in most grammar books: use a comma any time the sentence would otherwise be misread or when the reader needs to be guided toward the correct interpretation, as in the classic expression below:

A woman without her man is nothing. (technically correct for one interpretation)
A woman, without her man, is nothing. (clarifying commas) 

A woman: without her, man is nothing. (alternate reading)

Next time: Annoying Apostrophes

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