What’s in this episode?
In this episode of Red Ink Beer, David Bowman, owner of Precise Edit and author of 9 writing guides,
- answers a tricky question from the Zen Comma blog about using commas between complicated items in a list
- discusses an essential writing strategy paragraph structure and how to start paragraphs from Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing, and
- points out a major writing failure from Twitter.
Writing skills are demonstrated with examples and instruction. For more information about David Bowman’s writing guides, please visit http://hostileediting.com.
Video: 11 minutes. Transcript provided below.
Hi, I’m David Bowman, the owner and chief editor of Precise Edit and the author of now 9 writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. In this episode of Red Ink Beer, we’ll do three things.
First, we will answer a question from one of my readers over at the Zen Comma blog (http://zencomma.wordpress.com). We will also take a look at a new writing strategy having to do with paragraphs. And finally, we’ll take a look at a major writing fail from my very favorite source of writing failures, #grammer on Twitter.
All right, well let’s take a look at the reader question.
Last week, a visitor over at the Zen Comma blog posted the following question for me.
Hi, Mr. Bowman. Is the placement of the comma correct for this sentence: “Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese, and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”
The question is concerning that comma after “cream cheese.” Let’s take a closer look at the sentence and answer this question
We can solve this problem by looking at a similar sentence.
“Monday’s reception will feature two types of entertainment: clowns and a puppet show.”
Here, we see that there is no comma after the word “clowns,” and this is correct. This shows that there is not supposed to be a comma in that position. When we apply this to the original sentence and take out that comma, this is what we get.
“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”
The problem for the reader is that we have no idea what the ingredients are for each individual sandwich, but it is correct.
What makes this question really interesting is the fact that if we follow the comma rule and leave the comma out where it is not supposed to be, the sentence is less clear. Now, the main purpose of commas is to make a sentence more clear, not less. But the comma is not supposed to be here in this particular case, yet, if we take the comma out so that we follow the comma rules exactly, the sentence is less clear than when we break the rule and put it in.
Fortunately, we have some solutions to this. It’s going to take a bit more than just moving that comma, putting it in or taking it out. Instead, I think we need to take a look at different ways that we can reorganize or revise the sentence. Let’s take a look at some examples and see if we can come up with one that is going to make the sentence more clear and still allow us to use correct punctuation.
We have a few solutions we can use. First, we can simply number the sandwiches.
“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: (1) pineapple and cream cheese and (2) marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”
We tell the reader, this is what’s in the first one; this is what’s in the second one. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it does solve the problem.
Another option is to repeat the word “sandwich.”
“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese sandwiches and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese sandwiches.”
This also isn’t very pretty because it makes the sentence too wordy and too redundant.
My favorite solution is this one.
“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwich:
- pineapple and cream cheese and
- marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”
Let’s just make a little bulleted list. Now, the commas are correct, and the reader will know exactly sandwich has for its ingredients. This works great.
What have we learned from this? We have learned that it is, in fact, possible to follow the rules exactly and still produce clear, readable language—clear, readable sentences, which is what I have been saying all along.
When we have a problem like this, we really do have to think about not just a single element in the sentence, like a comma in this case, but also we need to look at the entire sentence structure, what it is that we are trying to communicate. That’s how we solved this problem. Instead of just adding or subtracting a comma, we had to look at the overall sentence, figure out what it is that we’re trying to communicate, and then structure the sentence in such a way that we can follow the rules and still make sense.
Writing Strategy: Paragraph Context
Let’s turn our attention now to the writing tip for the evening. This strategy is going to come from one of my writing guides: Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing, available in print, obviously, but also available in PDF and Kindl on the HostileEditing.com website, where I have all of my books.
Tonight, what we’re going to look at is paragraphing. In particular, how do you start a good paragraph?
Major Elements of a Paragraph: Three Cs
Every paragraph has three major elements, which we call the “3 Cs.” The first is Context. The second is Content. And the third is Conclusion. Each paragraph describes and discusses one main idea—and only one idea, which means that what we do at the beginning of a paragraph is very important because we need to introduce to the reader what is the singular idea that is going to be discussed in this paragraph.
What Is the Context?
The context becomes very important. Not only are we telling the reader, “Here’s what we are going to talk about in this paragraph; here’s what this paragraph is about,” but we also need to make sure that the beginning of one paragraph links us to the ideas presented in the prior paragraphs. Also, and just as importantly, why this information, why this idea is going to be useful to the reader. All of this takes place in the first couple of sentences, which we call the context to the paragraph.
Let’s take a look at a sample paragraph here, find the context, and see if it does these three things:
- Introduce the main idea of the paragraph
- Connect it to the prior paragraph
- Inform the reader why this is important to you.
Here we are looking at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of a second paragraph. It’s this second paragraph that we’re going to study carefully.
…The family nurse should never try to treat patients in these types of cases if they do not have the skill, resources, or knowledge to provide appropriate care.
The Texas State Board of Nursing regulates the practice and licensures of nurse practitioners in the State of Texas. The Nurse Practitioner Practice Act in Texas defines the responsibilities and scope of practice of the nurse practitioners, and the board regulates the range of activities and services and the qualifications for practice. The Act is intended to protect…
The first sentence in the second paragraph is establishing the context. It tells the reader, “Here’s what this paragraph is going to be about. Here’s the main idea that we’ll be discussing, in this case the regulations and licensure for nurses.”
This does link to the prior information. “Nurse practitioner” connects to “nurse practitioner,” and “skill” from paragraph one connects to “practice” described in paragraph two. So, that’s a nice linkage there.
And, finally, it’s important to the reader because they are aspiring nurses in this case, so it’s important for them to know what regulates their practice.
Ok, that example was fairly simple, but hopefully it gives you an idea about how to start a really great paragraph.
Paragraphing: The Most Important Skill
If there were one thing I would like to teach people how to do with their writing, one thing that would make the most important and most significant improvement in their writing, it would be paragraphing. In fact, I’ve often said that of the hundreds of graduate-level students that we’ve worked with over the years on their dissertations and papers and so on, if there’s one thing that I wish they would understand, it’s paragraphing. They often have really great ideas and information, but it’s hard to find what those ideas are because they haven’t clearly defined them in their paragraphs.
How the Context Helps the Writer
If you get your paragraph started right with a good context, it does a couple of things. Not only does it inform the reader “Here’s what this is going to be about; here’s the idea I’m going to talk about,” but it also has a big advantage for the writer because it allows you to keep straight in your own mind, “This is the only thing I need to discuss at this point.”
If we find when we’re writing that we have information in the paragraph that doesn’t relate to the idea described in the context, we know it needs to be taken out of that paragraph and put somewhere else. Also, if we find that we’re pretty much done describing and discussing the idea that is introduced in the context, then we know it’s probably time to start another paragraph. This follows the basic rule that each paragraph is about one, and only one, idea. When you’re ready to start another idea, then it’s time to start another paragraph.
So, that’s tonight’s tip from one of the writing guides, all of which are available over at HostileEditing.com.
Now, as I promised you, we’re going to take a look at a major writing fail from one of the greatest sources of writing goofs and gaffs that I’m aware of and that I use, Twitter.
Here’s the original tweet from Twitter:
“Why do people insist on talking loudly on the gone so ever1 can here them”
You see that this person misspelled the word “here.” But that’s not the writing fail that we’re going to be discussing.
What happens next is really interesting because somebody else comes along and says, “Aha! He has a misspelling, and I’m going to fix it.” Here is the response:
“hear them” #grammer
When he tries to embarrass the first guy, he misspells the word “grammar” himself! So, that’s the major fail.
I think that what we learn from this is if you’re going to correct somebody’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation, you really need to make sure that yours is also correct.
That’s it for this episode of Red Ink Beer. I hope you will stop by and take a look at the writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. We just finished number 9 [Common Sense Guide to Grammar and Punctuation], and it’s going out on Kindle pretty quickly. I’m sure that if you take a look, you’ll find one that’s just perfect for you.
That’s it for tonight. I’m David Bowman with Precise Edit. You can find my writing guides at HostileEditing.com. Best wishes to you. Thank you.
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