To my consternation, I have noticed that many people and advertising companies, perhaps the majority, omit a comma when a person’s or team’s name is in the sentence. I’ll add an X where commas belong in the sentences below. Pay particular attention to sentences that directly address a person.
Good for youX Henry!
NoX Sam, you are wrong about who started the argument.
Good morningX everyone.
In the last example, if you use the comma you are springing a surprise on Marlena. Without the comma, you are ordering someone to surprise Marlena as opposed to surprising someone else.
Adverbs are having their celebrity moment. The problem is that they are usually time and space wasters. How many times have you seen (or written) sentences containing the following?
Instead, use a verb that carries precise meaning; then you’ll have no need to add a superfluous adverb. If a television is blaring, no need to say that it’s blaring loudly. When someone shouts, it won’t be done quietly.
A friend’s young granddaughter was fond of starting most sentences with “actually.” When her grandma asked her what “actually” meant, Nicole gave it serious thought and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”
All words have explicit dictionary meanings—denotations—as well as associated meanings—connotations. Often these connotations are cultural. For example, a color, such as white, may connote purity in one culture and yet be the color of death in another.
It’s important to be certain what connotations words carry. Words you may see as synonyms may have either positive or negative connotations, depending on the context and the culture. For example, the word odor may be seen as positive, negative, or neutral. But if you’re looking for synonyms, check this list and see if some of them might not work for you. When in doubt, look up words in the dictionary to see if a word might have a connotation you weren’t aware of and don’t want. When writing a poem to your love and seeking to focus on how wonderful that person smells, it might be better to stick away from stench and reek.
It’s been my experience that when people see a very long sentence they immediately decide it’s a run-0n. In fact, you can have one sentence comprising thousands of words (even though no one would possibly want this), and it would not be a run-on, as long as it was structured correctly.
A run-on is a complete sentence, no matter how long or short, that is joined to another complete sentence by two different means:
- Jim is tall his brother is shorter. Here you have two complete sentences that have nothing to join them. This is the classic run-on.
- Jim is tall, his brother is shorter. Here the two sentences are joined by a comma, making what is known as a comma splice, another form of a run-on.
It’s easy to fix run-ons.
- You can put a period between the two sentences: Jim is tall. His brother is shorter. With very short sentences like these, using a period may seem a bit simplistic, but it’s not wrong.
- You can also use a semicolon between the two sentences, assuming they are closely related in subject matter: Jim is tall; his brother is shorter.
- You can add a connecting word: Jim is tall although his brother is shorter.
We most often write run-ons when we’re in a hurry. If we don’t take time to proofread (audibly—quietly so you can hear your own voice—and slowly), chances are we won’t catch them. But our readers may, and it’s best not to let that happen. It may not be fair, but we are often judged by our writing.
Here’s a sentence like one I used to use in my corporate writing seminars. See if you think the given pronouns are correct:
She and I approve of Martin traveling with them and we.
Did you find any problems? It’s easy to evaluate if you take it one at a time, pronoun by pronoun.
She approves…. So far, so good, right?
I approve…. OK by me. You too?
I approve of Martin traveling with them…. Also fine.
I approve of Martin traveling with we. Ouch.
You can hear that you need us for the final pronoun. (Us is the object of the preposition with. Prepositions are always followed by nouns or object pronouns.) Other than that one change, the rest of the sentence was grammatically correct. So even when a sentence seems overly complicated, if you take it one little piece at a time, you should be able to sort it out and make sure it’s right.
Mark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.
Peaks in the Mist
© Judi Birnberg
These three words all sound alike but are often misused.
PEEK means to sneak a glance, usually furtively. Adam peeked in the attic where the Christmas presents were stored.
PEAK is the apex of something: the top of a mountain, a gable on a house, the points on egg whites when they are whipped hard.
PIQUE as a noun is a feeling of annoyance, especially if one’s pride or honor is insulted.
PIQUE as a verb means to stimulate interest: A review of Ian McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, piqued my interest in reading it. It is an achingly clever novel narrated by a full-term fetus (unnamed, but obviously a modern-day Hamlet, whose mother is Trudy, father is John, and doltish uncle and Trudy’s lover is Claude).