The older I grow, the less important the comma becomes.

Let the reader catch his own breath.”

--Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart

Whether I am teaching fiction, business, or English writing classes, most people hate it when we start talking about grammar and punctuation. Adair Lara, author of Naked, Drunk, and Writing, calls it “The inconvenience of craft.” How can you not listen to someone who writes a book with that title?

Inconvenience of craft is the part we all wish would just magically appear in our writing the same way a great piece of dialogue or description might; but unfortunately, the last time I looked, there was no grammar muse.

I have had countless class participants who have questioned the need for “all those picky things” teachers seem so focused on that have nothing to do with the content of the paper, story, or article. And here’s what I tell them: “Those picky things have everything to do with your content.”

I rarely notice good writing until after I have read the text. The reason I don’t is because I am able to focus all of my attention on the content. If I do notice the writing while I’m reading, it’s because there is a problem: I’ve gotten confused, can’t follow the writer’s train of thought, or have to keep rereading a sentence. I stop paying attention to what the writer is saying and, instead, focus on how poorly written it is. You can use beautifully descriptive and flowing prose, biting sarcasm, keen insights, but if I can’t follow it easily, you have lost me as a reader.

My advice is two-fold:

  • Grammar. Learn as much as you can about verb tense, misplaced modifiers, and active versus passive voice. Don’t depend on spellcheck or grammar check in your word-processing program, but use them as a guide to check for possible mistakes. Then – and this is most important – make sure you have a good, user-friendly grammar book, so you can look up when to use “lie” or “lay,” “who” or “whom,” and “less” or “fewer.” May I recommend one I use in my business writing classes that work well for college writing, nonfiction writing, and even creative writing: The Business Style Handbook, by Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene. I don’t suggest using it for questions about creative writing style, but it’s great for those tricky grammar questions that always stop us cold. Finally, even if you are slightly breaking a rule (should there be a comma before the “and” in a series?), be consistent. People will assume you know your stuff if you always do the same thing each time.

  • Punctuation. Consider punctuation as you would road signs. Periods, of course, are Stop signs: Take a break for a second, then we’ll start up again down the same road, or perhaps we will turn left or right. A comma lets your readers know to slow down and Yield, because you are changing gears or adding additional information. Commas and semicolons are also good Curves Ahead signs: I have a series of items I want to share with you, but I’ll provide signs to let you know when I’m adding something more to the series – whether words, phrases, or complete sentences. Semicolons are also good Slippery When Wet or Bumpy Road ahead signs, because if we didn’t use them between complete sentences that are not joined by a conjunction (sorry for the use of grammatical language, but you know the old “and,” “but,” “or,” etc.), we would be sliding or bumping from one sentence into another without any forewarning that new thoughts were ahead.

  • I offer this advice, knowing full well that some of you will throw Kurt Vonnegut’s adage about creative writing at me: “First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.” I think there is something to that. I try to stay away from semi-colons in my fiction and poetry, but sometimes, there is nothing better than throwing one in and showing off your ivory-tower expertise.

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