Correct, but not Good

rogersgeorge on January 12th, 2018

Many people write perfectly grammatical sentences that aren’t very good. Unnecessary words, modifiers out of place, that sort of thing. Here’s a (ahem) good example. Look at the item about the pencil:

Believe it or Not has long been a favorite of mine, and I don’t often find solecisms in it. This sentence has two!

Here’s the sentence:

The metal sleeve on a pencil, which holds the eraser, is called the ferrule

  • First, the comma before “which” is correct. But the remark is not an aside! They should have written “the metal sleeve on a pencil that holds the eraser…”
  • Also, they got things in the wrong order. The pencil engineering is more accurate if you say “The metal sleeve that holds the eraser on a pencil…”

Smoother, now, isn’t it?

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Commas at the Beginning

rogersgeorge on December 26th, 2017

You might find this post boring. It’s a straight-out grammar lesson.

Here are the rules:

  • Separate interjections (such as “However, …”) and direct address (someone’s name or title) from the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory clause from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory prepositional phrase from the rest of the sentence if it contains five or more words.
  • Some common shorter prepositional phrases, such as “for example,” get the comma, too. This rule is flexible. If you have a short prepositional phrase, and it feels as if it needs a comma, go for it.

Okay, take a look at this:

However, the Coppersmith’s algorithm allows quite a lot of flexibility. Tom, you can’t do that!

Easy enough. Now how about this one:

To speed up the prime number generation, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

(British spelling. Ignore that). The sentence starts with “to.” Prepositional phrase, right? Well, no. It’s actually an infinitive. Infinitives are verbs. If it has a verb, it’s a clause. So I could rewrite this as:

To speed things up, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

Fewer than five words, still gets the comma. If fact, look at a sentence I just wrote:

If it has a verb, it’s a clause.

“Has” is a verb, so you have a clause. A lot of introductory clauses start with words like “if” and “when.” We call them introductory adverbs. In fact, if you got rid of that introductory adverb, you’d have a complete sentence, which requires a period, not a comma. If you write:

It has a verb, it’s a clause.

Get rid of that comma! Use a period! Two independent sentences separated by a comma is called a comma splice, and that’s a no-no.

Sorry—it’s pretty hard to find a comic about commas.

PS—Wouldn’t you know! I ran into one at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:


rogersgeorge on October 9th, 2016

I do a lot of my writing in a restaurant, so I’m a little bit sympathetic with the restaurant staff in this Bent Pinky comic, but the punch line brings up a little-used but useful technique in good writing, a semicolon. (Shall I drift onto another of my Greek rabbit trails? The punctuation used by Greeks for their question mark looks like a semicolon.)

The Bent Pinky

Maybe people don’t use it because the rules for semicolon usage are vague. Look at it this way: if the rules are vague, you can get away with using it, and no one will complain, because they don’t know either!

Okay, start with commas. Use a comma when the part after the comma depends on what’s before the comma. Look at any sentence in this post for examples. (Yes, we have other uses for commas, but those are for another post.)

Then there’s the period. You know how to use those. Two sentences can be on the same topic, but they stand alone.

Semicolons stand between these two. Technically the material on each side of a semicolon can stand alone (both sides have to have a subject and predicate) but they share a dependency of meaning that ties them closely together. Not enough for a comma, but too dependent for a period. I ran into this on Facebook. (If the owner identifies him-or herself, I’ll be happy to give credit.) It’s a good example of when a semicolon should have been used instead of that comma:


See how a semicolon would have been a better break? That’s not so hard; go thou and do likewise.

When Commas aren’t Enough

rogersgeorge on June 29th, 2016

Sometimes I think we could use a punctuation mark between the comma and the semicolon. Something for when you’re using commas to separate items in a list, but you need something a little stronger to separate the whole list from other parts of the sentence. Here’s an example from Gizmag:

In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, plasmons, excitons, and other particles with unexpected and usual properties abound.

You have to read that sentence twice to understand it once! The sentence is perfectly correct grammatically (if you excuse saying “microscopic” when you mean “submicroscopic”), but you can’t tell that “energy” isn’t part of the list that starts with “plasmons” until you get clear to the last word in the sentence! The sentence is correct, but it’s bad writing because it’s not clear.

Well, I’m not going to get anywhere lobbying for new punctuation. What’s the best way to fix this? Recast the sentence. Something like this:

In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, particles with unexpected and unusual properties, such as plasmons, excitons, and others, abound.

We separated the list from the prepositional phrase that begins the sentence. Confusion gone.

The sentence is still rather long. How about this?

In the mysterious microscopic realm where the electromagnetic fields of light and matter intimately intermingle as they exchange energy, particles with unexpected and unusual properties abound. These include plasmons, excitons, and others.


Do you know why that comma is after the word “energy? The rule is that if a sentence starts with a prepositional phrase that has more than five words, separate the phrase from the rest of the sentence with a comma. This one has twenty words. Quite a mouthful.

An Interesting Comment

rogersgeorge on May 21st, 2016

I hardly ever get comments to this blog, but I posted a link to one of my posts on Google+ the other day, and a friend made a comment that’s not only worth repeating, but it deserves a post! Go follow the link if you want to see the cause for the comment. Here’s his comment:

I think I get it right most of the time…but still have a hard time saying, “Whom do you think you are!?”….the other thing you taught me and I keep forgetting is where the quote marks go in a sentence…not sure I got it right above…

Lorin Walker (a former boss, by the way, and still a friend) says he has trouble saying “whom do you think you are?” Well, he should have trouble saying that, but not for the reason he thinks! We usually put the subject first in English, and the nominative (subject) form of the word is indeed “who.” So we’re used to putting “who” at the beginning of a sentence.

With questions, however, the subject generally doesn’t come first, the object does, and that’s where “whom” comes in. So you generally start a question with “whom.” Except for one thing: the type of verb.

Remember predicate nominatives? They look like direct objects, except they go with linking verbs (mainly some form of “to be” but also other verbs that are equivalent to an equals sign, such as seem and appear.) So in Lorin’s example sentence, the first word goes with (is the predicate nominative of) the last word, “are”! He could say “Who do you thing you are?” with impunity, and be so correct that he’d fool a lot of amateur grammar nazis.

PS: I just now saw a headline, in the Los Angeles Times, no less:

Who does your member of Congress support for president?
A sure sign that “who” is going to be considered always correct at the beginning of a sentence. Too bad, because sometimes (such as in this headline) it’s not. You can figure out why, can’t you?
PPS: Lorin got his quote marks in the right place. End punctuation goes inside if it’s part of the quote, and outside if it’s not. Except in American English, where commas and periods always go inside.