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Twenty-first Century Grammar and the Serial Comma

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1 Twenty-first Century Grammar and the Serial Comma
Not possible to cover everything in short time, but based on problems that I see as an editor at HP. Grant Writers' Network of Greater Houston Brownbag Meeting April 14, 2010 Ann B. May Hewlett –Packard Company Houston, Texas

2 What hasn’t changed Punctuation Grammar Spelling START HERE:
Eats, shoots, and leaves. P. 20, Lynne Truss has a great description: “ The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play. “ The comma was first used by Greek dramatists to guide actors between breathing points. In Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, Lynne Truss gives a quick history of how the marks developed, in quirky British fashion. Not talking today about the content or organization of proposals. Just on making sure that an error in grammar or punctuation can’t distract the reviewer from understanding what you want to say. Epictetus: “Do not write so that you can be understood; write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” Punctuation gives us a way to communicate meaning. 14 April 2010

3 What has changed and why? Influence of the Internet & social media
Bad Good Explosion of fonts, colors, and formatting Skimming Searching Linking and jumping around Texting and Slashes and dashes Shorter sentences More labels and headings EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES: p.179, Lynne Truss says: “The bad news for punctuation is that the age of printing is due to hold its official retirement party next Friday afternoon at half-past five.” 14 April 2010

4 Other trends Gender-neutral
Acronyms that use s (not ‘s) for plural forms Compounds moving from hyphenated compound to a closed compound (online, onsite) Less punctuation in general New words Non-sexist language has created some convoluted sentences, including, the reluctant use of a plural pronoun (they) as a kind of singular pronoun. Instead of using the awkward he/their construction, try to rewrite the sentence using they/their. 14 April 2010

5 Three grammar rules that can now be broken
Never end a sentence with a proposition. Never split an infinive. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Words such as and, but, or, nor, if, because, since, however, yet Punctuation is generally conservative…slow to change. 14 April 2010

6 Apostrophes Use an apostrophe for three reasons: To show possession
To indicate a contraction (don’t, the ‘80s) To prevent misreading in plurals of letters or some words (p’s and q’s and do’s and don’t’s) Usage change: Do not use apostrophes to make words or acronyms or decades plural. If in doubt, leave it out. Why is it that these little squiggles – the apostrophe and comma – seem to cause the most errors. Do not use an apostrophe just to make something plural. Often error in Acronyms. LED’s. 14 April 2010

7 Possessive pronouns do not need apostrophes
Possession Contraction its your his hers it’s (it is) you’re (you are) I’m sure you know this. Errors might come when you type quickly and your brain isn’t in gear. How I remember to use its for possession: you don’t have an apostrophe in his. 14 April 2010

8 Quotation marks When used with other punctuation:
Periods and commas (the little things) go inside quotation marks Colons and semicolons go outside Question marks and Exclamation marks (the tall marks): it depends Creative punctuation [Not “Creative” punctuation] Don’t use them for emphasis. If in doubt, leave them out. 14 April 2010

9 Comma errors Rule: use a comma and a conjunction to join two independent clauses in compound sentences. Don’t use a comma if you have a compound verb. We will send the package by FedEx, and follow up with a phone call. (incorrect) We will send the package by FedEx and follow up with a phone call. (correct) Don’t use a comma by itself We will send the package by FedEx, later we will follow up with a phone call. (incorrect) We will send the package by FedEx, and later we will follow up with a phone call. (correct) There’s a famous quote from Oscar Wilde: “I was working on a proof of one of my poems all morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back.” The opposite of the first rule is using a comma without the conjunction. Don’t do this unless you are a famous writer. 14 April 2010

10 Commas, continued Commas in a series of items (the serial comma)
Most style guides (and English teachers) say to use it consistently to prevent misunderstanding. Technical editors say to use it consistently. Journalism teachers say to leave it out. Commas to set off nonessential information. If you use a comma to set off a parenthetical phrase, an unessential phrase, use two commas. If the phrase is at the beginning or end of the sentence you only need one comma. Commas are used to separate chunks, not bits, of information. You may have heard “insert a comma where you pause” -- not necessarily, not every pause. Think of a flutist—they take breaths at the end of a musical phrase, not after every couple of notes (Action Grammar, p. 34) 14 April 2010

11 Common grammar problems
Subject-verb agreement: look for the subject Don’t be tricked by words in between the subject and the verb. An important function of the managers are delegating responsibility. (incorrect) An important function of the managers is delegating responsibility. (correct) May be confusing with certain types of nouns: A total of 35 votes were required to change the bylaws. INCORRECT A total of 35 votes was required to change the bylaws. CORRECT It gets harder the farther away the verb is from the noun. “Her experience with several different programming languages make her well qualified for the job. NO You have to imagine the sentence with just the subject “experience” and the verb “makes” – then you should not have a problem. A few nouns can be singular or plural -- decide what is best for the circumstance. Is it acting as a single unit? Or are individual actions important? For example: staff, committee. The committee has reached a decision. The committee have reached a decision. Try using a different noun, like “committee members,” or just “members” which is easier to tell singular/plural. 14 April 2010

12 Modifiers that are unclear or are too far from the word they modify
Dangling participles While reading the report, the conclusion became clear. (incorrect) While reading the report, I quickly reached a conclusion. (correct) has good examples of dangling modifiers. 14 April 2010

13 Misplaced modifiers Make sure you get the modifier close to the word it modifies. She borrowed a computer from a coworker with insufficient memory. She borrowed a computer from a coworker, but it had insufficient memory. The computer that she borrowed from a coworker had insufficient memory. #1 may be true, but it is probably not the intended meaning. Rewrite the sentence. 14 April 2010

14 Ambiguous antecedents
It’s better to repeat the word itself than use a pronoun. If the computer prints an extra page, throw it away. (This could be interpreted as throw away the printer.) If the computer prints an extra page, throw the page away. 14 April 2010

15 Latin abbreviations Avoid them. It’s better to stick to English, so everyone understands what you mean. A common error is to use both e.g. and etc. in the same phrase. e.g. means for example; “this is only a sample” etc. means “and there are more like it; this is only a sample.” 14 April 2010

16 Words that are often confused or misused
Check the dictionary to be sure. principle/principal complement/compliment; cite/site; all right/alright comprise/compose For examples, see 14 April 2010

17 Editing your own work When you are the writer, proofreading your own work, it’s easy to miss something. Try to get somebody else to read it over. When editing your own work: First work on the content and the organization. Then look at what you have written. It may help to work on a printed copy, rather than on the computer. Work at the sentence level. Make one pass for each item in the checklist. 14 April 2010

18 The favorite places for errors
On the title page In a heading In a caption, in the first line, first paragraph, or first page of copy Close to another error (Errors frequently cluster. When you find one, look for others nearby.) The 5 most common problems that are discovered at the last minute, even after everyone has checked everything ( Error-Free Writing, by Robin Cormier) Incorrect pagination Table of contents that does not match the text Incorrectly numbered graphs or tables A typo in a running head A typo on the cover or the title page Why? Probably no body ever read them—not even the author. I’ve discovered the best way to catch a typo. Set the copier to make 100 copies and press Start – you’re likely to spot something while you’re standing there watching . 14 April 2010

19 More places to look for errors
The 5 most common problems that are discovered at the last minute, even after everyone has checked everything ( Error-Free Writing, by Robin Cormier) Incorrect pagination Table of contents that does not match the text Incorrectly numbered graphs or tables A typo in a running head A typo on the cover or the title page 14 April 2010

20 Editing checklist Spelling Grammar Punctuation
Numbered sequences such as lists, figures, tables, sections Alphabetical order Cross-references or links point to the correct locations Table of contents matches the final pagination Check and double-check numbers, in words or figures, such as prices, rates, dates, percentages. Don’t forget to search for placeholders. If you use XXX to stand in for a real figure that you need to fill in later. Look for pairs – be sure you have both the opening and closing parentheses. Read the text for continuity around figures. Sometime if you have a figure that floats, that is, it can move depending on the text, sometimes it can float over your text and hide it. 14 April 2010

21 Spelling and grammar checkers
Do they work? Yes, but…they miss a lot. For example: They’re, their, there Principle/principal Loose/lose Due/do Fewer than/less than Yes, I use Microsoft’s grammar and spell checker. The grammar checker can pick up sentence fragments, repeated words. 14 April 2010

22 Tips for using spelling and grammar checking software
Customize the spelling checker dictionary with names and organizations that you use frequently. Delete from the dictionary words that you commonly misspell. Search for your common typos, such as sever (for server) and manger (for manager). Run the spelling checker twice on material that has a lot of names of people or organizations. It is easy to accidentally press ok if you are moving rapidly through the material. Remember to resave the file after you run the spell check. 14 April 2010

23 References References, supplemental
The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition. You can even subscribe to the online version at Merriam-Webster Online References, supplemental A Concise Guide for Grammar and Style - For words that are often confused: Eleven rules of writing 14 April 2010

24 References, supplemental
United States Government Printing Office Style Manual Top Ten Grammar Problems, Rutgers University Apostrophe Protection Society has an online test for practicing good examples of dangling modifiers University of Colorado Q & A 14 April 2010

25 Style and Grammar Reference Books
The old standards: The Elements of Style (Original Edition) by William Strunk The Chicago Manual of Style by University of Chicago Press Staff Journalism style The Associated Press Stylebook 2009 (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law) by Associated Press Action Grammar: Fast, No-Hassle Answers on Everyday Usage and Punctuation by Joanne Feierman Technical Writing Handbook of Technical Writing, Ninth Edition by Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu For government documents, detailed examples, suggestions for presenting information in tables United States Government Printing Office Style Manual GPO offers an online bookstore at Also available through Fondren library at Rice For fun Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss 14 April 2010


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