Tag Archives: communication

Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.


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Writing Style and Language Complexity


Writing style comprises four characteristics:

  1. Formality
  2. Language complexity
  3. Objectivity, and
  4. Information depth.

The purpose you are trying to accomplish, the readers’ needs, your relationship with the reader, and the type of document affect the style in which you write. Style is a strategy for effective writing, not a goal.

Levels of Language Complexity 

Some writers use simple, straightforward sentences with few modifying phrases and clauses. Others use complex sentences with many modifiers, interjected descriptions, and multiple clauses and phrases.

Simple sentence example: “Lisa bought a red car.”

This simple sentence contains a simple subject (“Lisa”) and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”). This sentence has two modifying words (“a,” “red”) but no other phrases or clauses.

Moderately complex sentence example: “When the day ended, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, bought a red car.”

This moderately complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a simple subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), and a simple predicate with an object (“bought a red car”).

Very complex sentence example: “When the day ended, which couldn’t have happened soon enough, given the type of day she had had, Lisa, a sales clerk at the downtown market, a grimy, dark nook in an old building, bought what she mistakenly thought was a new, or, at the worst, slightly used, red car.”

This complex sentence has an introductory descriptive clause (“when the day ended”), a description of the introductory clause (“which couldn’t have happened soon enough”), a description of the description of the introductory clause (“given the type of day she had had”), a subject (“Lisa”), an appositive for the subject (“a sales clerk at the downtown market”), a description of the appositive for the subject (“a grimy, dark nook”), a description of the description of the appositive for the subject (“in an old building”). And then we finally get to the predicate, which is similarly complicated.

Key Features of Language Complexity

As these three examples show, the 2 key features of language complexity are

  1. the number of descriptive phases and clauses and
  2. the levels of description (such as description of description).

A careful writer considers sentence complexity in light of the readers’ needs. Simple sentences can be read quickly and understood easily. As sentences become more complex, they contain more information and “flavor,” but they require more work from the readers and increase the potential for misunderstanding.

Advice for Writers

As with all style issues, the level of language complexity needs to fit the readers’ needs. Simple sentences are the most easy to understand. They present minimal information in a straightforward manner, with no interruptions in the main thought being communicated. On the other hand, using too many simple sentences, or a string of simple sentences, makes the writing appear amateurish.

For technical manuals, lists of instructions, user guides, and other documents that present single action steps, stick with simple sentences. For most other types of documents, the writer can present more complex information and create better reader interest and engagement by using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences.

If your goal is reader understanding and interest, avoid very complex sentences. Overall, you will communicate best by

  • using a mix of simple and moderately complex sentences,
  • limiting the number of descriptive phrases,
  • presenting only one descriptive phrase at a time, and
  • avoiding descriptions of descriptions.

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3 Strategies for Writing about Complex Subjects


The basic principle for writing about complex subjects is to do the work necessary so that the reader can understand you easily. Of course, your first task is to make sure you understand your own ideas. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” With this in mind, here are three strategies to help you write clearly about complex ideas, each taken from 300 Days of Better Writing by David Bowman. 

Day 33: Use the simplest correct words.

Using big words makes you seem smart. They make your reader think, “Wow, this writer really knows a lot!” Right? Probably not.

Using words that are outside of your readers’ common vocabulary may have three effects, all negative. First, they reduce the readers understanding of what you are trying to communicate. Second, they distract the reader from what you are trying to communicate and force the reader to concentrate on word meaning. Third, they can give the impression that you are trying to impress the reader, which will make you seem pretentious. If your goals are communicating clearly and improving your credibility, use the simplest correct words.

One note about the “correct” word: While you are choosing simple words that mean what you want to say, you also need to consider how readers will respond to them. As such, you need to think about the tone you wish to create. Continue reading

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