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