Tag Archives: Compound sentence

Self-Editing Tip #12: Commas > Series and Lists

6 Aug

The Comma Continued: Series and Lists

Commas are used in series to join three or more words, phrases, or clauses.

Ex. While on the playground, the girls used the slide, the boys used the swings, and the teachers chatted.

This is different than a list because the series becomes part of one complete sentence rather than an add-on to a sentence. In a list, commas are used to separate multiple words, phrases, or clauses which have been set apart by a colon (:).

Ex. The following ingredients are needed for our cake recipe: flour, baking soda, eggs, sugar, vanilla, butter, and salt.

Shown above is a simple example of a list of individual words. When listing phrases, clauses, or complete sentences, especially those containing commas, it is important to use semi-colons (;) in place of commas to differentiate between each list item.

Ex. To make a cake, complete the following steps: cream butter, sugar, vanilla, and eggs; mix flour, salt, and baking soda in separate bowl; while stirring wet ingredients, mix dry ingredients into batter little by little.

In both series and lists, there are opportunities to use or forgo what is called the Oxford Comma (or serial comma). This is the comma before the “and” which precedes the last item in a list or series.

Ex. For breakfast, I ate bacon, eggs, and orange juice.

Consider what the sentence would really mean if the Oxford Comma was removed.

Ex. For breakfast, I ate bacon, eggs and orange juice.

The debate on which form is correct, whether the semantics of the sentence are truly changed by this comma or not, and if the Oxford Comma will ever go away is a heated one. Many newspapers no longer use the Oxford Comma. Titles like The Economist, USA TODAY, even Oxford University’s own style book no longer use this punctuation. However, the Associated Press’ most current AP Handbook release still does not end this debate. Most writers outside of the UK, Australia, (if I’ve left out a country, add to this list in the comments section) and those in the newspaper industry, continue to punctuate in this manner. It is a personal choice. I strongly believe in the Oxford Comma. Decide what it means to you—a sensible breakfast or talking to your breakfast about breakfast?

Self-Editing Tip #11: Coordinating and Correlative Conjunctions

2 Aug

Coordinating and Correlative Conjunctions–Coordinating conjunctions connect phrases or sentences within a single sentence as equal structures. And, but, nor, for, or, and yet are all excellent choices for employing this form for more complex sentences. Correlative conjunctions are similar, but come in pairs. Think of them as power conjunctions. Correlative conjunctions allow a writer to place emphases on certain parts of a sentence over others, compare and contrast ideas, and list in order of importance. However, the pairs must be used correctly to have these sentence-boosting effects. The following lists the prescribed pairs for correlative conjunctions: either-or; neither (and sometimes not)-nor; both-and; not only-but also. Without the proper conjunction in the pair, the first conjunction has no impact, and the sentence makes little sense.

Ex. Correct= The hotel boasts both four Michelin Stars at its in-house restaurant and a world-class spa.

Incorrect= The hotel boasts both four Michelin Stars at its in-house restaurant or a world-class spa.

To use correlative conjunctions for emphasis, consider which part of the sentence you naturally inflect when reading aloud. Write your sentence. Read it aloud. Does your voice inflect at the point you want attention drawn to most? No? Try moving the conjunction, or using a different conjunction.

Ex. The hotel boasts both four Michelin Stars at its in-house restaurant and a world-class spa.


The hotel both boasts four Michelin Stars at its in-house restaurant and touts a world-class spa.

By placing “both” before the object of the sentence, in the first example, the idea that the hotel boasts more than one extraordinary feature is emphasized. By placing “both” before the verb of the sentence, it suggests that the hotel does more than one thing. Each example is correct grammatically. On a semantic level, the placement of the correlative conjunctions can change the meaning of the entire sentence. It is up to the writer to decide what element of a sentence means the most.

To use correlative conjunctions to compare and contrast ideas use “both-and” (grouping/comparison); “neither-nor” (grouping/comparison); or “either-or” (choices/contrast) between related or opposing points to link ideas in an powerful way.

Ex. Characteristic of both cats and dogs (1) is an extraordinary sense of smell. Smell as they may, neither cats nor dogs (2) can hear as well as bats which use echolocation for sight, navigation, and hunting. It would be interesting to see which hunting method is most successful—either the dog’s sense of smell (3), useful for tracking, or the bat’s echolocation (3), useful for targeting prey.

(1) Comparison of cats and dogs

(2) Comparison of cats and dogs PLUS contrasting the pair with bats later in the sentence

(3) Giving choices between two contrasting options—dogs or bats

To use correlative conjunctions for listing, caution must be taken. When listing more than two items or ideas, “both-and” is not an option. “Both” suggests two of something. In fact, the only option for listing more than two of anything is “not only-but also.” Here, the words do not suggest any quantity or a choice between two options like “either-or” and “neither-nor” do.

Ex. Not only do we sell chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream—the classics—but also mint chip, butter pecan, crazy vanilla, orange sherbet, brownie bite, cake batter, and cotton candy.

There are obviously many ways to use coordinate conjunctions to combine two simple sentences or phrases into one complex and interesting sentence. However, equally important as matching conjunctions with their proper mate is matching sentence/phrase structures in parallel form. Just like coordinating conjunctions connect phrases as equals, the structure of those sentence parts must also be equals.

Ex. Correct= Everyone hid in the storm cellar as the rushing winds passed, tense and silent.=both adjectives

Incorrect= Your flat farmland and cutting down the trees provided the perfect landscape for a funnel cloud to form.= “Your flat farmland” is a noun phrase. “Cutting down the trees” is a gerund, a verb phrase where the verb is in the “ing” form.

In writing, the parts of a sentence need to be as consistent as your message. You wouldn’t want to contradict your main point, right? You probably also don’t want to negate your point at sentence-level with distracting disturbances in tone, rhythm, syntax, and clarity.

Coordinating and correlative conjunctions: Use them correctly, or don’t use them.

Self-Editing Tip #2: Comma Splice

2 Jul

The Comma Splice—Basically stated, a comma splice is any instance where a comma is placed between two independent clauses without a conjunction to accompany it.

Ex. We were going to lie on the beach today, it rained, we couldn’t go.

Imagine a period at the end of clause 1 in place of the comma. Does it work as a stand-alone sentence? Asking this question is usually a good way to test a clause to see if it is a complete sentence. Do the same with clause 2 and 3.

I’ve used a lengthy compound sentence in this example to show that sentences with comma splices are different than a list. The example above is not a list of events. Each clause functions as a complete sentence when separated from the comma and other portion of the sentence. This means there is a comma splice.

There are two options for fixing comma splices.

In order to leave the comma, a conjunction must be added.

Ex. We were going to lie on the beach today, but it rained, and we couldn’t go.

In order to leave out the conjunctions, a semicolon must be added in place of the comma.

Ex. We were going to lie on the beach today; it rained; we couldn’t go.

Now, the example above is not the most conventional use of the semicolon. You generally find them in compound sentences with two clauses. However, there is no rule about using them as shown, especially if the goal is to set your writing apart stylistically.

For examples of (almost excessive, but effective) stylistic use of the semicolon and comma, check out Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra.” For more specific discussion about comma splices, semicolons, and other grammar concepts, I recommend Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (6th or 7th edition).

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