Monthly Archives: October 2011

Easing My Way into Commas

I did receive some suggestions of better titles for this post, most involving puns that I’ll leave to your imagination (think Shakespeare, Mackenzie King, 80s music, and—inevitably—Sanskrit). But since comma jokes are too easy, I am just going to stick with a boring, descriptive title.

One of the reasons that I have put off discussing commas for as long as I have is the obvious fact that there is so much to be said. In the face of such an extensive issue, it can be hard to sort out what actually needs to be said. In the classroom, I often address this problem by starting with a segment dedicated to ‘what I wish people knew about the topic at hand’. In order to prepare those remarks, I have to think hard about what I repeatedly see in student writing. Once I have figured that out, I am able to focus on discussing things that I know to be troublesome rather than on confronting the topic from all possible angles.

So what do I wish people knew about commas?

1. That understanding comma use in compound sentences—which involves understanding coordinating conjunctions—is crucial.

2. That comma use has to be more than just a response to the length of a sentence.

3. That commas come in two varieties: solitary and paired. When we use only half of a pair of commas, we create confusion.

4. That grasping how restrictive and non-restrictive elements work is essential to using commas well.

5. That comma use can be influenced by discipline.

6. That the decision about whether to use the serial comma should not be taken lightly.

I hope that these six points will work as six distinct posts. The first step, in a future post, will be to look at comma use in compound sentences. Stopping here—before getting anywhere near the nitty-gritty of commas—is wrong, I know. And I would love to dive right in, but the way commas function within compound sentences is far too important to be tucked away at the tail end of this post. If you take that as a roundabout way of saying that I just didn’t have time to write a comprehensive post on comma use in compound sentences this week, I’m okay with that.

Lastly, I wish you all a fun-filled Halloween! (Just in case you have any nagging questions about how to spell or pronounce Halloween, The Word Lady is there is clear things up!)

Links: Editing Yourself, Blogging Your Reflections, Dancing Your PhD

Here is some advice from a professional editor about the types of editing we should be doing for ourselves. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new writing blog, Lingua Franca, Carol Saller offers some tips for self-editing (my approach to this topic can be found here). I particularly liked her reminder that we do a lot of damage through editing itself. Not that we shouldn’t edit—obviously!—but we should be aware that we create a different class of errors through editing than we do through writing. We need to know what our typical writing errors are, but we also need to be aware of the sort of problems we may be inadvertently creating when ostensibly improving our writing through editing. Saller mentions the various ‘cut and paste’ errors that result from moving text around (for instance, repetition and non sequiturs). I would add two more. At the sentence level, be very careful with forms of agreement—for instance, subject and verb or noun and pronoun—when making changes. At a broader level, make sure that all changes are reflected in the language that we use to refer to our own text; for instance, if we decide to reorder a set of points, we must be sure to go back and change the sentence where those points were first introduced. In general, we need to think—especially in late-stage editing—about all the connections that exist in our text. Some sentences stand alone and can be changed solely according to their own demands. But many more sentences stand in relation to others; in those cases, we must be cognizant of how local changes can have a broader impact.

Writing in The University of Venus blog, Lee Skallerup Bessette recently offered her thoughts on the formal demands of a blog post. She offers an interesting breakdown of the general types of academic blog posts and then defends the value of posts that are reflective rather than definitive.

The fourth annual Dance Your PhD contest is coming to a close. I believe the winner will be announced today! If you have never watched these wonderful (and wonderfully odd) videos, you are in for a treat. I’m amazed every year at how they manage to illustrate complex scientific concepts in manner both effervescent and earnest.

Finally, we have reached another day of note. A few weeks ago, you may recall, I looked into the phenomenon of national days of any-old-thing. But today is different: it is the official National Day on Writing. It’s official because the United States Senate passed Resolution S.298 saying so. I hope you won’t let this special day go by without some quiet time alone with your thoughts and a writing instrument of some kind!

Go Small or Go Home

While working on a recent post on anxiety and audience, I couldn’t shake a feeling of vague dissatisfaction; this dissatisfaction led me to some fairly unproductive tinkering with the post until I realized the source of my discontent. I wasn’t actually unhappy with what I had said; I was just unhappy that I was saying it. That is, I was unhappy to be discussing—yet again—something general rather than something specific. This blog has, of late, seemed to lack a concrete connection to writing. In my mind, the blog needs to balance two elements: broad exhortations about how to manage academic writing in general and concrete approaches to specific writing decisions. The first one is easy–being bossy isn’t much of a stretch for me! The latter, however, takes a different kind of focus. I make the same distinction in the classroom: there is teaching that requires sentences and teaching that can get by on pronouncement alone. There is a place for both, but I know that I am strongest in the classroom when real examples are being deployed; I also know that when I am overwhelmed, underprepared, or uncertain, I tend to go big. And while this tendency may matter less in a blog—since anyone can ignore the content that doesn’t speak to them—I would like to establish a better balance.

So I am going to start with the most concrete thing I can think of: commas. I have said lots about the more glamorous punctuation marks, but I have ignored the punctuation mark that we most need and most misuse. We could technically do without colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, but we need commas. We obviously can’t do without periods, but they are difficult to misuse. Commas have the distinction of being essential and yet subject to lots of confusion. There’s so much to say about commas that I’m hoping it’ll last me for the rest of the fall! Now that I’ve put it down in black and white, I have no choice. I almost feel relieved.

Links: Feedback for Thesis Writers, Post-Academic Careers, Limitations of Spellcheck

Here is an interesting discussion from Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the writing feedback that is given to thesis writers. Surprisingly, she is discussing what to think when someone says that you ‘write too well’! Toor addresses two possible meanings of this odd utterance. First, she discusses the idea that good writing is somehow inappropriate and suspect in a dissertation. Second, she considers whether ‘you write too well’ is a sort of code for ‘your ideas aren’t that good’. Needless to say, using the term ‘good writing’ as that sort of backhanded compliment would be an outrageous misuse of the term. Toor sums up what one should do if confronted by this unexpected comment: “… if someone ever tells you that you write too well, ask him for an explanation and be prepared to hear something that will cause you to do more work. If, however, he proceeds to make the case that the language shouldn’t matter in scholarly writing, that clarity isn’t important, that good sentences are a waste of academic time, sue that idiot for scholarly malpractice.”

This recent column, also from The Chronicle of Higher Education, covers familiar ground: the graduate student experience. Between the article itself and the vigorous comment stream, the pertinent issues—micro and macro—are well covered. I kept the link but thought it unlikely that I would include it here—what else is there to add? But then I saw this related but very different post from the ProfHacker blog on post-academic careers; the post highlights the value of a good understanding of our professional options and our own vocational inclinations. My question, after reading these two articles, is how the narrative of graduate student misery affects the development of such awareness. It seems possible that the general and accepted level of unhappiness about graduate school may serve to obscure specific unhappiness. If all graduate students are miserable and expected to be so, how does any individual graduate student learn that he or she might just not like this type of work? Similarly, it can be hard to interpret the pleasure derived from non-academic work when such work is often framed as nothing more than an illegitimate way of avoiding the legitimate tasks of academic work.

Lastly, here is something fun on the limitations of spellcheck programs. You’ve probably read or seen something like this before, but Taylor Mali’s enthusiastic wordplay (and occasional profanity) is sure to focus your attention on what your spellchecker might be missing.