“Any project that’s been held up in general fear-based polishing is the victim of a crime because you’re stealing that perfect work from a customer who will benefit from it. You’re holding back the good stuff from the people who need it, afraid of what the people who don’t will say.” Seth Godin
An important factor in writing is varying style so that readers do not fall into a stupor. If every sentence is the same length, with little or no breaks—provided through punctuation and sentence structure—then reading becomes monotonous and they phase out.
Academic writing is very prone to this mistake, but, alas and alack, so is creative writing. And, without a doubt, it is always important to diversify our writing styles. One of the best methods to manage this is to make use of small, but significant, pauses created by simple sentences, commas, parentheses, and dashes.
We tend to believe that simple sentences are nothing more than “The dog ran” or “The fat cat sat.” While they are indeed short, they need not always be that short. A simple sentence really only lasts to about one, or less than one, line on a page. It will not talk about more than one idea, but this attribute means that it reinforces what we write about.
Further, short sentences break up the monotony of reading. Instead of our readers always coming across two to four line sentences—after all, describing a scene or discussing the lives of protozoa is highly important—and becoming lost in the details, short sentences give our readers little “mental breaks.” Thus, in between long sentences, readers can stop. Then they continue reading. This enhances what we have to say. Additionally, the complex sentences are now more important, because not every sentence is the same.
Commas are a very specific form of punctuation with the very specific purpose of adding small pauses within sentences. There are three ways to use a comma: listing, after introductory information/separating clauses, and offsetting inessential elements. We all learned about listing in school, and that tends to come naturally to us. Whether or not we use the Oxford comma is completely left up to our discretion. Much to the horror of Grammar Nazis.
When using a comma after introductory information, you’re establishing that what comes first fully illuminates the main part (or clause) of the sentence. The information is not the most important piece of information, but it is necessary to understand that which is. Additionally, we use commas to separate independent clauses followed by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) This means that the information prior can stand independently of what follows, but what follows cannot stand alone as it is a related effect. These types of pauses signal what is essential information to our readers, and slow them down as they read so that they have time to interpret what we write.
One of the most enjoyable types of pauses is using commas to offset inessential information. These are the things we don’t necessarily have to tell the reader, but we like it. Further, it offers our readers more information, say her hair color or the color of the cuttlefish when it chose its mate, about our topic. Generally, these inessentials are the first to go when we edit, but they do create nice breaks in what we write and are quite fun.
Parentheses and Dashes
We use parentheses and dashes in much the same manner as we use commas. Therefore, we bring them in to vary our styles so that our readers are not always confronting the same type of punctuation.
Parentheses, more often than not, are used to offset inessential elements or explain something in more detail. You can imagine them as a sort of whisper pushing into the conversation to fully elaborate an idea, add a sarcastic remark, or, as is often the case in academia, establish that something is one thing and another thing (ex. (dis)junctions or m(O)thering). They are a rather direct way to speak to readers, and should be used sparingly.
Dashes are slightly quieter than parentheses. As with commas, they are used to offset inessential information. However, this “inessential information” is established to be just as—or even, at times, more—important than the rest of the sentence. To use a dash is to separate out details for a reader, giving them something to focus on in the brief reading pause created by our writing.
While it can seem a bit nitpicky, the pause does allow our readers to take breaks, and, more importantly, makes our writing more engaging. Plus it’s amusing to play around with.
(A side note on commas: Many English tutors will advise writers to place a comma wherever they would naturally pause while speaking. This, however, is unequivocally untrue. Some people pause more often than not and some don’t pause at all. Overall, this method leads to random commas, comma splices, and run-on sentences.)
“Let grammar, punctuation, and spelling into your life! Even the most energetic and wonderful mess has to be turned into sentences.”—Sir Terry Pratchett
Today, we often do not receive as much formal instruction in the mechanics of writing, grammar, punctuation, and spelling as we ought. Not to mention, our brains refuse to wrap themselves around strange, foreign terms like independent clauses or dangling modifiers. These complicated terms seem to properly belong in the domain of English teachers, Grammar Nazis, and linguists—and nowhere else. At the same time, our writing is often judged or graded by these seemingly abstract standards.
So grammar is important, but how do we get better without breaking out an incomprehensible grammar handbook?
Read good writing. Carefully examine masters of the craft—in all disciplines and genres. The easiest way to learn about the use of dashes, when to use “you and I” or “you and me,” and how to avoid naked pronouns is to pay attention to what good writers do and don’t do in the structure of their work. This is not to say that we learn by osmosis. Instead, we learn about grammar, punctuation, and spelling by critically examining these mechanics in essays, histories, novels, or academic/literary papers. This critical reading allows us to start noticing patterns in sentence structures and the uses of punctuation. We, in turn, begin to instinctively mimic the good writing we are exposed to. Eventually, we develop our own style and voice, and have discovered grammar, punctuation, and spelling in the process.
Additionally, it’s important to ask experts—like our English teachers or tutors—to read and comment on the structure of our writing. When they offer advice—such as review all comma rules—we need to listen, searching out the answers from reputable websites, such as Owl at Purdue, or in a grammar handbook. Then, after finding the answers, we studiously begin to correct our mistakes as we write. This technique is rather like “on the job” training. After a while, these corrections develop into habits and we don’t have to fret about the mechanics as much as we once did.
Overall, the best practice is to refuse to let grammar, punctuation, or spelling defeat you. Continue to write, seeking out the answers to problems as they arise. With practice and much writing, we’ll eventually get rid of sentence fragments and stop misusing semicolons. And then we get to play with the mechanics. Which is when the real fun starts. 🙂
Next Week: The Connection between Reading and Writing