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Let's suppose that the conjunction is "and," linking two separate clauses, each of which could (in theory) stand on its own two feet as a separate sentence. I looked that matter up in a reference book a while back.

I believe the sensible advice I encountered in that book went approximately as follows:

1. In that context, the comma right before "and" can sometimes be omitted without automatically making you a literary wrongdoer.

2. However, as a practical matter, the longer your clauses, the better the odds that including the comma will help the reader spot the sudden shift of topic. It's when the clauses (and thus the entire sentence) are pretty darn short that the comma becomes obviously optional.

For instance, if I type:

I washed the car and I mowed the lawn.

There's nothing confusing about that. Each action may have taken an hour to perform, but they are described concisely. I did one and then I did the other -- there's no time for the reader to "lose track" of where one long-winded clause ends and another begins!

On the other hand! If I type:

I washed the car with that new industrial-strength detergent I'd bought during my recent trip to Wal-Mart and I mowed the lawn with the mower Jack had finally returned.

It seems sort of unbalanced. Inserting a comma makes it look a little better -- more clearly marking the fact that one clause is terminating and another is beginning, with a shift in topic.

I washed the car with that new industrial-strength detergent I'd bought during my recent trip to Wal-Mart, and I mowed the lawn with the mower Jack had finally returned.

(I don't say that long sentence is "great writing" either way, but I think the comma in the middle constitutes a visible improvement.)

5/29/2012 . Edited 5/29/2012 #91
Corinne Tate

It's the ambiguity that bothers me. I have seen so many writers plagued with run-on sentences, and they use commas to join every little thought. So I decided I would leave out any comma that didn't seem absolutely necessary. But now I want to polish my work to a higher standard, and I'm trying to find hard and fast rules to teach me how to do it right. But then I see so much is left to the writer's discretion. It makes me wonder what the reviewer means when they say I "misuse some commas." Without a specific example given, then perhaps it's just my own creative license? Sigh.

5/29/2012 #92

I occasionally say, in my reviews, that someone is missing some commas, or stuck one in the wrong place in a sentence, or whatever. But if I say such a thing, I ALWAYS cut-and-paste a specific example of what I'm talking about, and then I re-punctuate that example in my review in order to illustrate how it should have been done. It wouldn't even occur to me to just say "be more careful with your commas" and leave it at that! Merely dropping a vague suggestion about where there was room for improvement would not leave me feeling I had provided any USEFUL feedback.

5/29/2012 #93

Here's an interesting sentence where, to me, the commas make it ambiguous. Of course, we know what is intended but it does sound odd as though her being unemployed and unmarried, offset rather than add to the burden. I would miss out the first comma. This is taken from the Suleman Octuplets article in Wikipedia...

Many expressed concern that Suleman's decision for more children, despite being unemployed and unmarried, would burden taxpayers via public support.

6/20/2012 #94
Corinne Tate

Uh...yeah, being unmarried and unemployed is a good thing.

I might do it this way:

Many expressed concerns, that being unemployed and unmarried, Suleman's decision to have more children would burden taxpayers via public support.

6/20/2012 #95

Yes, that's much clearer - though I suspect taking away the 'despite' weakens the meaning. People were concerned not that she had more children and just happened to be unemployed and unmarried - they were annoyed because she did it knowing full well. So, I'd put that 'despite' back in your version. Let's call it a typo shall we? ;)

6/20/2012 #96

I don't see any ambiguity there. Those are parenthetical commas - there are two because the sentence still makes sense when you remove everything between them. You can't remove just the first one because then you have a single comma between subject and verb. But remove that whole middle phrase between the commas and what you get is

Many expressed concern that Suleman's decision for more children would burden taxpayers via public support.

I agree that it's a long and rather convoluted sentence. And I don't understand what "burden taxpayers via public support" means. Isn't 'public support' donations, and hence voluntary and not a burden on the taxpayer?

It's a poorly written sentence overall. You can't "decide for" something - it's not English. You can "decide" something or you can "decide to do" something. Staying close to the original, I'd be going for

Many expressed concern that, since Suleman was unemployed and unmarried, her decision to have more children would burden taxpayers.

6/20/2012 #97

And I don't understand what "burden taxpayers via public support" means. Isn't 'public support' donations, and hence voluntary and not a burden on the taxpayer?

And by that I could tell, before even looking at your profile, that you're from the UK. In the US, the term "public support" means taxpayer funded programs. Similarly a "public school" is a taxpayer funded school.

George Barnard Shaw was right.

6/20/2012 #98

It's a poorly written sentence overall. You can't "decide for" something - it's not English. You can "decide" something or you can "decide to do" something. But, according to the The Free Dictionary.Com, it is an idiom?

decide for someone or something

to rule in favor of someone or something; to make a judgment for someone or something. The jury decided for the plaintiff. The judge decided for me.

So I assumed it meant she decided in favour of having more kids, despite difficult circumstances... Is the dictionary wrong? It could be, I know several other dictionaries that contain nonsense. But would be bad news, I often use this one for work. :(

6/20/2012 . Edited 6/20/2012 #99

Cathrl: You say you don't see it as ambiguous but can you tell me how then you determine which of its two possibilities is true (I mean from the grammar rather than deducing it from the meaning.) I wish I could think up a similar sentence where it is not possible to deduce it from the meaning.

To me, the sentence means something like either of the following (note I'm not aiming for good grammar but to split up the meaning for clarity.)

Many expressed concern that, despite knowing she was unemployed and unmarried, Suleman still decided to have more children. This would burden taxpayers via public support.

Many expressed concern that Suleman's decision for more children would burden taxpayers via public support, even though she is unemployed and unmarried and therefore not eligible for benefits. [let's presume for the example. In other words - with this meaning their concern is that there is some other way she might be a burden]

In other words, what I'm trying to say is that the 'despite' can qualify either her decision or [the burden] and it's not clear which in the original from the grammar alone.

6/20/2012 . Edited 6/20/2012 #100

The "despite being unmarried..." bit should refer grammatically to the subject of what's before it, i.e. her decision. Which is at least part of why it's confusing. Obviously her decision can't be unmarried, so the writer must have meant something else, and then we have to guess what that was. You can't deduce it from the grammar because the grammar is wrong.

"Despite being unmarried..." should be referring to Suleman herself. Not her decision or the burden. Neither a decision nor a burden can be married or unmarried.

Your first version would be fine even without the extra "she".

Many expressed concern that, despite being unemployed and unmarried, Suleman still decided to have more children. This would burden taxpayers via public support.

For the other meaning, you'd need something like

Despite the fact that Suleman was unemployed and unmarried when she decided to have more children, many expressed concern that taxpayers would be burdened via public support.

I don't think it's possible to write it both ambiguously and in a grammatically correct way. The only way I can make it ambiguous is to have the "despite" clause linked grammatically to something it can't possibly be linked to (e.g. decisions being married) such that you have to guess what the author intended.

can you tell me how then you determine which of its two possibilities is true

Parenthetical commas. You take out everything between them. What's left is a sentence and has the same meaning as the original, just not in as much detail.

Your version also has parenthetical commas - removing them gives

Many expressed concern that Suleman still decided to have more children.

I'd forgotten the legal meaning of "decide for". I still don't think you can use it in this situation.

6/20/2012 #101

Funny thing about grammar is once you know the rules, you can break them. If you are trying to use a different creative style and it works in your story, you can get away with it. Case and point: James Joyce, Hemmingway, Faulkner and many others have been known to flout the rules of grammar to their own end (Hemmingway and Faulker are both Nobel Prize winners).

Not that I condone bad grammar (my friends have nicknamed me "the grammarian") but I do think a certain amount of artistic license can and perhaps should be employed.

For example: writing in fragmented sentences. I have used this method to create a certain mood as well as to convey thought process of a certain POV. It is also very prevalent in drabble fics. Grammer rulebreaker? According to English textbooks on the rules of grammar, it is. But I think fiction can allow for a certain amount of leniency.

6/20/2012 #102

about the fragmented sentences thing: I'm not so sure about that because they seemed to be on every damn page of the hunger games and it became tiring; like ok, I get what's going on is dramatic and all but damn!

6/20/2012 #103

Changing topic; I need help with olde worlde type phrasing. Anyone know any good tools for that? Conversion thing eg, He walks = He walketh. The following is my first draft of an extract a character finds. Because it is a quoted text by persons unknown within the story it does not need to be perfect grammar - only in the same sense that speech does if you know what I mean. I want to use as much old style phrasing as possible to keep the reader clued in but I think some tenses are probably wrong here.

This year of 1680 & being an account relateth of former histories yet trusteth by Lacedrew himself. Two scholars lost to us. These two deceaseth: Miss Ellyn Holbrook and Master Adgar Stockton Wade, of sixteen and ten months and seventeen and one month respectively, plungeth by choice from an balcony said hath collapsed by magicks foul else mistakenly employed. Same account hath sure knowledge of a blessing effecteth that day at the Harken Trysting Stone in our own Forest these two being sweethearts and inseparable. Said Miss Ellyn later curseth of a wronged else jealous suitor, Thurgis Bowett, also of seventeen years, casteth down herself so Master Wade likewise drawn by his grief, his ardour, and his devotion did follow. This tragedy not forgotten to our memories. Said Bowett detected and detained for his curse, gutted, weighted, and hung grievously until dead may his soul rotteth in hell down there.

6/20/2012 #104

This might be useful for some of the issues: http://homepages.wmich.edu/cooneys/tchg/lit/adv/shak.gram.html

It has a very quick and easy overview of Shakespearian grammar.

This is anothor: http://dan.tobias.name/frivolity/archaic-grammar.html

Another think to look at, is syntax, or word-order. This site has some valuable advice on that:


Sorry for not looking at your writing more in depth, but I am going away and will be gone until over the week-end or as long as a week. I wanted to at least give those links before I left.

6/21/2012 #105

Thanks Ragnelle - I'll check them out.

6/21/2012 #106

Hm... it depends on how realistic you want to have it. Late 16th century it's already Early Modern English, so there's not so much of 'olde worlde' type phrasing, I'm afraid. For example, this is the excerpt of Thomas Brown's Pseudodoxia, the 7th publication in 1672:

The conceit is surely grounded upon the visible mischief of Glass grosly or coursly powdered, for that indeed is mortally noxious, and effectually used by some to destroy Mice and Rats; for by reason of its acuteness and angularity, it commonly excoriates the parts through which it passeth, and solicits them unto a continual expulsion. Whereupon there ensues fearful symptomes, not much unlike those which attend the action of poison. From whence notwithstanding, we cannot with propriety impose upon it that name, either by occult or elementary quality, which he that concedeth will much enlarge the Catalogue or Lists of Poisons.

It feels old because of some words and spelling, but it's not that much different from modern texts. If you want text that sounds old, you need something older. This is from Mallory's Le Morte Dartur, from the 15th century:

So came to the kynge Vther Syre Vlfius a noble knyght and asked the kynge why he was seke. I shall telle the said the kynge I am seke for angre and for loue of fayre Igrayne that I may not be hool. Wel my lord said Syre Vlfius I shal seke Merlyn and he shalle do yow remedy that youre herte shalbe pleasyd.

If you don't care about history of English and simply want it to sound old, then I'd recommend the second style. A lot of broken and inconsistent spelling (in the same text, the 'fayr Irayne' is also described as 'fair Irayne'). Some words are difficult to understand, but in general it's possible from the context. E.g. 'felle seke' = fell sick, 'I may not be hool' = I may not be whole, etc. Compared to that, your text has too much 'eth', and too proper spelling and syntax.

I'd retell it in a way of an old chronicle (just a quick draft): "The account related of tragedie of fayr lady Ellyn Holbrook and her squir Adgar Stockton Wade, in anno domini 1680, in the village XY. Lady Ellyn was younge and fayr and there was no lyke her in whole country. And squir Adgar, the son of lorde XY was her loue and they hath blessing of their fathers. And another squir Thurgis Boweth was in loue with fayr Ellyn but she would not assente unto hym. Thenne Thurgis employed foul magik and cursed fair Ellyn..."

I hope it helps. :)

6/21/2012 . Edited 6/21/2012 #107

Thanks, yes, it all helps. There are things there I can use. Having seen that I might aim somewhere in between. The date is not critical. I can change the date to suit how it sounds. I've also phrased it so the writer is recounting what was written earlier so the actual date can be vague. I also will have two or three of those characters as ghosts so I have to be careful with their dialogue - though it will only be a few lines.

In that last one I see 'shall' is spelt three different ways. I get the impression that the rules were not yet fully set and also the writer might not be fully literate anyway.

6/21/2012 #108

Lol, Mallory was as literate as one could be, at that time - he was not only a writer, but also a knight and the member of the Parliament. The spelling rules were not unified until 18th century, until Johnson published his Dictionary. Before that... Hume (I think) said, that English was unelegant and neglected because there was no dictionary or a tolerable grammar. And that was three centuries after poor Mallory, so it really wasn't his fault.

But it does sound a bit like troll writing, doesn't it? xD And now I'm hooked, it sounds very promising - I want to read it and see the result and ghosts. :)

6/21/2012 #109

Gulp - I'd better get it right then.

6/21/2012 #110

My grammar and spelling is bad. The spelling I can deal with. There's always spellcheck but my grammar...am I fooling myself into giving writing a serious go if my grammar is as bad as I think it is? I know the bascis...full stop...comma... but semi colons trip me up. I can't post anything yet in the story submission section because I just joined but maybe you'll get a better understanding of what I mean once I get some work up.

6/28/2012 #111

Just by reading your post, I can tell you that your grammar is MUCH better than a woman's that I'm Betaing for right now in my fandom. And she honestly thinks that her grammar has nothing wrong with it. My suggestion, just get a good and patient Beta. It could take a while to find one but don't let that stop you from writing while you look. You just won't be posting as you write. And there is nothing wrong with that.

6/28/2012 #112

Okay...this is bad but...what's a BETA? haha

6/28/2012 #113
Corinne Tate

You the writer are the Alpha, and someone who comes in to help you with your story is called a Beta. It's a little hard to come by a good one, but there are several places on this site to look for one. You can also advertise on your profile that you're looking for one. There is a listing of Beta's on the site... ah there it is at the top of the screen! But a lot of those profiles are out of date.

I'd actually recommend using some online tools to learn the grammar and punctuation rules. A lot of them are pretty simple, once you take them out of the classroom. A little bit of reading can help your writing immensely.

6/28/2012 #114

I hate to correct you, Corinne but, assuming that beta is the same as in software and game development, it refers to the writing not the person.

Alpha is the first complete rough version. The term itself is very fuzzy but that's approximately what it means. It might vary from being extremely rough up to very polished depending on the method of work. It might even not be absolutely complete. For instance, alpha reading might reveal a weak area and a new section added. I do my own alpha reading over and over to a level that overlaps beta reading in quality but it can never really be true beta reading because that needs someone different.

Beta is the complete version that has been tested thoroughly 'in-house'. In the case of a single person this means by the person him/herself. Again, fuzzy in use, and many software developers do not test as thoroughly as they should before passing it on to beta testers.

Beta readers and beta testers are the people who do an 'outside' job of testing, that is, a person or people that did not do the development. There are various advantages such as having a different mind finding faults another might not or in the case of software, they have different computer systems which might reveal a fault the developers could not know about.

So, a beta reader is someone who test-reads the beta version of an article, chapter, story, looking for faults, flaws, weaknesses, and/or giving general feedback. Ideally this should be done by a reasonably competent person. In the case of a video game it often helps to have someone test play it who is not competent to reveal flaws that might spoil it for the novice.

6/28/2012 #115
Corinne Tate

I appreciate that correction Hippothestrowl. I was thinking in terms of wolf packs, where the Alpha is the strong lead wolf, and the Beta has the position of second in power. Your explanation works so much better than mine.

6/28/2012 #116

I can't find the original discussion on who v whom. This is my sentence...

It was obvious that the place had been used by someone but not by who.

I can't decide if who is the subject or object of that construction.

who uses the place suggests it is the subject and that's what I'm going with unless someone corrects me. :)

7/11/2012 #117

I am not an expert in grammar so take this for what its worth but I sounds more natural to me if you replaced WHO with WHOM in that sentence.

It was obvious that the place had been used by someone but not by whom.

7/11/2012 #118

It was obvious that the place had been used by someone, but not by whom.

I think you're right, Jaded, but I also think there's a comma missing. It feels wrong and run together without the comma. Anyway, when it was 'by who' the sentence seemed weird and it took a bit of debate to figure out how the sentence was supposed to work. When whom was in it, it instantly made sense.

7/12/2012 #119

It was obvious that the place had been used by someone but not by who.

The only info I can find about the comma is it should be used between independent clauses but I'm not sure but not by who is independent. I think it represents but not used by who. That sounds clearer if I said but was not used by Jim. That can't be independent because it's a transitive verb requiring an object and there isn't one. So I think the comma would be correct if there were an independent clause, e.g.,

It was obvious that the place had been used by someone, but he had already left.

As for the who/whom, what feels right is not necessarily what is correct. Someone needs to explain to me why who is not the subject of used. Who uses the place not the other way around. Either way I'll probably be damned because I imagine a lot of readers will think who is wrong even if it's not.

7/12/2012 . Edited 7/12/2012 #120
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