by Doug Lewars
“have it your talking may about you Good can’t what to to reader overrated you’re some idea grammar if ignored. when be but be want writing it entirely comes”
The above is a random collection of words – literally random – I used a random number generator in Excel to produce them; however, before being randomized they were once a coherent sentence. The original sentence was ‘Good grammar may be overrated when it comes to writing but it can’t be entirely ignored if you want your reader to have some idea what you’re talking about.’
The whole point of grammar is to make English text easily accessible. That’s it. Your English teacher was entirely out of line when he or she told you that you must obey all the rules. You need to make your work clear, unambiguous and accessible. Despite what you may have been told, the sun will not go nova if you end a sentence with a preposition.
With punctuation, there are two approaches that may be taken. The first, and the one that causes hackles to rise among certain individuals, is to use it to provide tempo to your writing. Commas provide short pauses. Semi-colons invite the reader to a longer pause while periods generate a full stop. Punctuating this way can work quite well, but it will invariably result in one or more rules being broken; and for some, this is rank heresy.
The second approach is to make use of the rules you were taught in school. One way of doing this is by means of a tool. There are several on the market so I won’t mention any by name, but they all provide satisfactory results. A problem for some writers is that these tools, however accurate they may be, don’t necessarily produce what the individual using them wants produced.
There are occasions, for example, when a sentence fragment may be quite useful in a story. An application will flag it, and while the recommendation may be ignored, having that red underlining while editing can be frustrating.
Personally I stay away from grammar checkers because the one with which I’m most familiar – largely because of their advertisements – operates on its own server and I’m reluctant to store my writing under the control of someone else. True, I’m protected by copyright but should that be ignored I lack sufficient resources to take the issue to court.
Generally I punctuate by reading my work and inserting commas and semi-colons where I want short and longer pauses. Still, a general awareness of the rules is beneficial.
Let’s start with semi-colons. If you have multiple clauses of a compound sentence not joined by conjunctions then separate them with a semi-colon.
“Once I knew greatness and then came despair.”
You can drop the ‘and’ and replace it with a semi-colon.
“Once I knew greatness; then came despair.”
Doing it this way adds a certain drama to the passage.
In addition semi-colons are frequently used along with connectives such as ‘however’, ‘moreover’, ‘consequently’, ’thus’, ‘hence’, ‘therefore’, ‘besides’, ‘also’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘still’, ‘otherwise’, ‘likewise’ and possibly a few that I have missed.
“Once I knew greatness; however despair quickly followed.”
A second, and rather similar usage, is preceding explanations prefixed by ‘namely’, ‘for instance’, ‘for example’, ‘that is’, and ‘as’.
“Some sort of insulation will be required; that is, rubber or perhaps plastic may be effective in preventing shock.”
The third and final ‘rule’ regarding semi-colons is to use them when you need to separate two parts of a sentence one or both of which contain commas.
“The farm-lad had a bit more memory on his device than did most of his peers, so perhaps that was coincidental; but it wasn’t exceptional.”
In my opinion, commas should be used when your ear tells you to use them. In the grammar book I used in high-school, I counted seventeen rules for their usage. Most are obvious but a few should be noted.
Use a comma to set off words such as ‘why’, ‘well’, ‘now’ and ‘yes’ at the beginning of a conversational sentence.
“Yes, that is correct.”
If a sentence is long and contains a conjunction, then a comma should be used.
“He journeyed three days through the valley of Arden, and finally arrived before the gates of Sellica in the province of Tyers.”
There is one other case of interest. Occasionally a comma may replace a verb.
“We fought for justice. They fought for gold.” These two sentences may be combined into one.
“We fought for justice; they, for gold.”
Finally we come to the dash. Its most common usage is to separate a secondary thought within a sentence.
“Of course he would miss his children – well, a little anyway – although he couldn’t be said to be a model parent.”
It can also be used to indicate an abrupt change of thought.
“A fortune in gold was available – not that he really cared.”
I’ve covered only a smattering of punctuation uses here. Such highlights may help a few but as long as your writing flows comfortably and is not ambiguous, then you can feel confident that whatever rules you’ve cast aside don’t matter to any great extent.
Please do not show this post to your English professor.
Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.
Reblogged this on When Angels Fly.
I’m happy that you compared punctuation to music; stating that it provides the “tempo” for one’s writing. Without musical symbols, a tune can come out all wrong–the same with punctuation. Also, thanks for helping with the semi-colons–I shall be semi-commatose from now on.
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Lovely common sense post.
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I wouldn’t put a comma in this example because the second half after the “and” doesn’t contain a subject: “He journeyed three days through the valley of Arden, and finally arrived before the gates of Sellica in the province of Tyers.”
If it read “He journeyed three days through the valley of Arden, and he finally arrived before the gates of Sellica in the province of Tyers,” then I’d put a comma there.
I tend to hew to the rules for most things… except dialog. Then, all bets are off.
Excellent article; thank you.
I like your point – grammar is a tool to help us read more clearly. Though I’m not a fan of too much creative license in writing, I do admire when it’s used in a clear way that doesn’t confuse the reader.
Thank you for getting back to the basics! Grammar is something I take for granted at times. Do you prefer a particular form of punctuation? I’m quite fond of the semicolon myself.
Reblogged this on Kim's Musings.
I tend to over-punctuate then have to go through deleting many of my commas and shortening sentences! I was taught never to use a comma before ‘and’ but as in all things, there are exceptions to the rule.
Your opening sentence is proof that one needs to be an excellent writer to write poorly.
Good points, but I’d argue that grammar is a tool like any other. Breaking the rules for effect is a common tactic in fiction; semicolons can be seen as pretentious, and commas are often misused in their place. I believe that for any write it is vital that the rules of grammar never be UNINTENTIONALLY broken.
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Reblogged this on quirkywritingcorner and commented:
Punctuation has always been a problem for me. This article helped me understand semicolons better.
Excellent piece. Funny; I was just considering using the popular and well advertised grammar website. The first thing I thought was, do I really want something externally controlled or someone other than me searching through my writings before I’m ready to release them to the public? I immediately let that idea go and decided to go pretty much with my gut. I mostly did well in my English classes, so it couldn’t be that bad. Great tips on commas and semicolons. I always wanted a good guide for the difference in usage. Thank you. I love this. 🙏🏾
Reblogged this on Jessica Bakkers and commented:
Fascinating post. How do YOU approach grammar and punctuation? Is it a guide to help a reader follow your story, or is it the be all end all, unbreakable set of rules to be adhered at all costs?
Wonderful post. I consider I have a good grasp of grammar, but I use it as the author here has suggested, to provide a roadmap for my readers to follow my story… not a GPS which is technically correct but might send them erroneously into a duck pond!
I understand the use of semi-colons, but not a fan of long sentences. Your thoughts?
In a review someone once pulled me up for incomplete sentences, i.e. Dependent clauses (sometimes) punctuated as if full sentences, even though they featured no main verb. But I maintain was done consciously for effect. And I start sentences with ‘but ‘, too. And ‘and’.
Thanks for this blog, good to get a reminder of grammer basics and not to panic if I don’t get it right. The world will not end!
Reblogged this on ESP rambles… and commented:
Interesting post; well, if your your sentences were going haywire – it might be high time you punctuate!