Tag Archives: proofreading

The Comma Versus the Dash for Emphasis


Comma or Dash?

Here’s the question: You want to add an emphatic statement to the end of a sentence, something that will catch the readers’ attention. To create reader focus, you want to create a brief pause prior to the emphatic statement. But do you use a comma or a dash?

Bad Example and Explanation

Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it:

It’s reality, and the subject of a jury-prize-winning film in the GE Focus Forward Film Competition. (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018–abc-news-tech.html)

See that comma? The writer is using the comma to set off the final information and to create impact, i.e., emphasis. That comma is a problem.

One of the most common uses for commas is to signal the end of a complete sentence, a.k.a. independent clause, that the writer is linking to another complete sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but). The sample sentence begins with the independent clause “It’s reality” and the conjunction “and.” The comma suggests that the information following “and” will be another complete sentence, which is not true.

In fact, the entire descriptive phrase “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film…” is linked to the verb “is” found in the contraction “it’s.” As evidence of this, the writer could have written “It’s reality, and it’s the subject of a . . . .” Unfortunately, the writer didn’t do this. By using the comma to create an emphatic pause, the writer separated “it” from its description.

Still not convinced that the comma is wrong? Try this: Separate the subject from its first description and see if it looks right. “It’s, reality” is incorrect because it separates the subject “it” from its description, “reality.” The subject and the first description need to be together, not separated by a comma. The subject and second description also need to be together, but the comma separates them.

In brief, the comma needs to go.

Solution: Use a Dash

How, then, could the writer have created the pause needed to create emphasis? Answer: use an em dash, which is the long dash.

Em dashes have several uses, but the primary use is to create a pause before a final statement that is joined by a conjunction and would otherwise seems like part of the grammatical structure of the sentence. The long pause will cause the reader to focus on the final statement.

Examples of commas versus dashes for emphasis:

1. He is a veteran, a hero. (This doesn’t need a dash because “a hero” isn’t joined by a conjunction and because leaving out the comma would make an ungrammatical sentence.)

2. He is a veteran–and a great father. (This uses an em dash to separate and emphasize “a great father,” which the conjunction “and” would otherwise join to the first part of the sentence.)

If the writer of the bad example wanted to create emphasis on “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film . . . ,” the writer should have used an em dash.

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Use concluding words to state your main point.


When you are writing a document to persuade your reader about an idea, you present your supporting ideas or evidence leading up to the main point. If you do this well, your reader will come to the same conclusion that you are trying to make.

To show that you have finished making your argument (i.e., completed writing about the reasons for your idea) and are about to state the main idea, you use a concluding word. A concluding word tells the reader, “Based on this information, I conclude that . . . .” Sample concluding words and phrases are thus, therefore, in conclusion, and as a consequence.

These concluding words provide a signpost for the reader. They say, “I’m done giving the evidence, and now I’m going to tell you the idea that I want you to believe.”

You may be able to make your main point without them. However, they are very effective for helping the reader identify what it is you want them to understand.


This is the strategy for day 81 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

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Those doggoned sentences.


Peanut the elephant from Spencer Quinn's "To Fetch a Thief".

I love dogs, and I love a good mystery. So when I came across the Chet and Bernie mystery series, I was ecstatic. The books are narrated from the perspective of Chet, the dog. I really enjoyed this as too many times in books and movies, animals are overly anthropomorphized.

I cuddled up at night with books one and two, Dog on It and Thereby Hangs a Tail. I couldn’t wait to get book three, To Fetch a Thief. In this book, Chet and Bernie, Bernie being a private detective and Chet’s owner, set out to find a missing elephant, Peanut. Peanut was the main attraction in a small, family-owned traveling circus that happened by Chet and Bernie’s town. The more they learned about Peanut and her trainer, the more they found that she just wasn’t missing. She may have been kidnapped.

As I delved into To Fetch a Thief, I was really into the mystery like I was with the previous two books. Then, I got around to the middle of the book, and something strange was happening. At first, I didn’t want to believe what was happening, couldn’t believe it. Sentences were becoming a blur, often times not making any sense at all. I just kept shaking it off thinking these were minor errors that had been overlooked. But it kept happening.

I started noticing misspelled words, run-ons, overly hyphenated statements, and other writing blights. It was true; this book had taken a turn for the worse. I soon felt that I was missing the great story of Chet and Bernie’s adventure in the search for Peanut. Poor Peanut. Poor beloved dog mystery series!  Continue reading

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8 Sentence Patterns for Academic and Technical Writing


(From Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing.)

An expert academic or technical writer needs only a few basic sentence patterns to produce easy-to-understand writing. Each of the sentence patterns below will result in clear academic or technical writing. However, do not use any one pattern more than twice in a row to prevent the writing from sounding repetitive and boring. Also, use the more complex sentence patterns less frequently. They are more challenging for the reader and may make the writing overall more complex than necessary.

All effective sentence patterns start with the Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) sentence structure. Optional components are additional S-V-O structures and descriptive words, phrases, and clauses (D), which can be placed in various locations.

In the samples below, the subjects are underlined, and the main verbs are in italics.

1. Simple sentence (S-V-O): A simple sentence has one subject–verb pair. It starts with the subject (or an adjective and the subject). The subject is immediately followed by the verb (or an adverb and the verb). A simple sentence may contain an object.

Example 1: The computer desktop provides access to your files. Continue reading

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Three Strategies for Writing to Your Reader


Here are three tips from 300 Days of Better Writing about how to understand your readers and give them what they need.

Day 110: Be prepared to work hard at your writing.

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

(Nathaniel Hawthorne)

(Please excuse the curse word. It may indicate Hawthorne’s
frustration with the work necessary to produce good writing, or it
may indicate the strength with which Hawthorne believes this.)

The point of this quote is that clear, easy-to-read writing is not easy
to produce. Instead, it is the result of writing, analyzing what you
write, and re-writing—perhaps many times.

When you write, you are attempting to communicate. The more work
you put into writing, the better you will be able to communicate.
Hard work by you leads to easy understanding by your reader.

People have told me, “Writing is so easy for you.” This isn’t true. I
have practiced writing, studied writing, and analyzed what makes
writing clear. The documents they read are the result of much work:
writing, criticizing, and rewriting until they are “easy reading.”
That’s what great writers aim for: not easy writing but easy reading. Continue reading

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Commas with Pairs of Adjectives


You have two adjectives together. Do you or don’t you put a comma between them? If they are coordinate adjectives, you do. This follows Zen Comma Rule P.

Comma Rule P: Put a Comma between Coordinate Adjectives.

Definition of Coordinate Adjectives. Adjectives are coordinate if they meet two criteria: (1) You can place and between the two words, and the sentence means the same thing, and (2) You can reverse their order, and the sentence means the same thing.

Sample 1: We had a hot, dry summer.

Sample 1 has the adjectives hot and dry, both used to describe summer. If we write We had a hot and dry summer, the sentence makes sense. It also makes sense if we write We had a dry, hot summer. The adjectives meet both criteria, so we know they are coordinate and put a comma between them.

To native English speakers, the two revised sentences will sound like natural speech, and the two criteria are likely sufficient to identify coordinate adjectives. For a more technical explanation, we can examine the Royal Order of Adjectives.

(If these criteria and revisions make sense to you, skip the next section and go to Rule Q.)

Definition of Royal Order of Adjectives. This is the order in which native English speakers naturally use adjectives in speech and writing. Although exceptions exist, such as to emphasize specific characteristics, this order is generally true. Continue reading

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3 Strategies to Make Bad Information Sound Good


Sometimes, things are not as good as you expect. Sometimes, the truth hurts. Sometimes, you are not perfect. And you have to write about it. These three strategies will help you write about bad, or embarrassing, information in a way that makes the bad information sound better than it is. You need to tell the truth; that’s a given. But you can tell it in a way that produces a positive, or less, bad reaction from your reader. 

Day 146: Put a positive spin on negative information by writing not + [positive term] + [excuse].

When we talk about spin, spinning, or putting a spin on information, we mean writing information in a manner that leads to a particular interpretation. This is used to make good news seem bad or unimportant. This is also used to make potentially unpleasant information seem more acceptable. Spin is very common in the media and political world, but it is also used in everyday writing and speech. You will have to decide for yourself whether or not this is ethical. Continue reading

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