by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh: President, Word Branch Media
Due to a move to another state, it’s been a while since I posted a blog, and I feel rootless. Because there’s a lot of chaos in my life right now, I feel the need for structure . . . and . . . rules. I once had a computer-tech major tell me that the reason that he didn’t like studying writing was that language is “capricious” (look it up!). Students sometimes feel we, by “we” I mean English teachers, are making it up as we go along. Writing is neither capricious or made up; there are some pretty hard-core rules, and I find this comforting when I feel like the rest of my life is out of control.
So I thought I’d blog about my favorite set of usage rules: commas. I am very well aware that this is not fascinating stuff to the majority of the planet, so when I do my comma lecture in class, I always watch for the tell-tale signs that I’m losing my audience like eyes glazing over and sneaking peeks at cell phones. When I begin to see that I’m losing my most attentive students, I cut it short and switch to something fun for a while. Since I can’t see you stealthily backing away from your computer, I’ll keep it brief, and I’ll post a fun break at the end of the blog. I’ll also keep it to just one usage of commas, and save the others for another day. So stay right where you are and pay attention. It will hardly hurt at all, and it’s good for you!
Let me first debunk the most insidious rumor about commas: you insert one when you need to take a breath. That would mean that long-distance runners would use fewer commas than heavy smokers—right? Well, it’s not quite that capricious. You first need to go back to Mrs. Smith’s third grade class and dredge up some of those old terms you thought you’d never have to use again. A full sentence (an independent clause) is made up of two parts of speech: a verb and a subject. A verb, as you know from third grade, is an action word: to run, to sleep, to be, etc. A subject is a noun (person place or thing) that is doing the action. Therefore, “I walk” is an independent clause. If I wrote “I walk the dog,” dog would be the object (the noun that has the action done to it), but an object isn’t needed to make an independent clause; it just makes it easier to understand and often to flow better.
So let’s take two independent clauses: I went to the store. And: I bought bread. As two sentences, they sound choppy, so to improve the flow, I might want to “glue” them together. If I joined them together without punctuation (I went to the store I bought bread), it would be a run-on sentence. If I joined these two independent clauses together with a comma (I went to the store, I bought bread) it would be called a comma splice. Think of a comma as white glue trying to hold together two heavy objects; it wouldn’t hold very well.
I could do several things to fix my sentence. I could use a semi-colon, the super glue of punctuation: I went to the store; I bought bread. However, that’s a little too dramatic for this very functional sentence. Because they are both independent clauses, I need more glue. I can use a comma and a conjunction (and): I went to the store, and I bought bread. If I wanted to make this a simpler sentence and take the focus off of “I,” I can lose a subject, and now my sentence would be an independent clause (I went to the store) and a dependent clause or fragment (bought bread). Now I don’t need as much glue, so I can leave out the comma: I went to the store and bought bread. Got it?
It would hurt me deeply to think that you are out there playing solitaire instead of breathlessly consuming my grammatical wisdom, so I prefer to think of you eagerly awaiting your reward for paying rapt attention, so here it is: http://freerice.com. It’s fun; its language related, and you can do a good deed as well. And please note my correct use of semi-colons and comma in that sentence.
Reposted from May 25, 2008
Although you may use this advice freely, the writing is copyrighted and may not be used without the express permission of Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh-President Word Branch Media
The last week has been hectic: I’ve ended a semester, and a five-year teaching job; we traveled three hundred miles to find a new house, and we have been rushing to sell our current house. On top of that, I have been keeping up with CRT Writing Services. I feel as unfocused as my slightly hyper Australian Sheppard who thinks he’s a large Jack Russell Terrier.
However, I have to focus. I don’t have the luxury, as Ozzie does, to let it go until after I take a nap. I have deadlines to meet and responsibilities to other people (see previous blog!). And through my own trial and error process, I’ve found that helplessly staring at the keyboard really doesn’t get the job done. So what’s a frazzled writer/teacher/new-home owner to do?
As you may have gathered, I am a list maker. Technologically sophisticated or shockingly simple, making a list gives me guidance. You may feel that lists confine you; you simply can’t be helped by anything as mundane as a list! I beseech you to give it a try; listing can make the most intimidating set of tasks look manageable. And don’t forget to prioritize. Watching all the recorded TiVo sit-coms may be at the top of your list, and possibly the more appealing option, but it probably won’t get your more pressing tasks done.
Once you lay out your plan of attack, stay calm. I find that if I have a clear head, I am more able stay on task. This part is very individual. Some people need absolute quiet while others work best with heavy metal blaring through an MP3 player. I need a window close by with natural sunlight for my work area, but other people find a window too distracting.
Ask yourself honest questions about your own behaviors and create a workspace that makes you comfortable and at ease with the least amount of distractions. I’m a yoga person. I find even just twenty minutes of yoga puts everything into perspective, evens out my breathing, and unkinks tight muscles. I feel focused and refreshed. There are even many yoga workouts that you can do at a desk, and at work, without attracting too much attention. My favorite online yoga workout source is www.yogadownload.com. You, however, may not be a yoga person, but there are a number of yoga-like techniques that can help your focus. The GYGO Breathing Ball add-on for the Windows’ sidebar is one of my favorite quick fixes. This is a graphic of an expanding and deflating ball to which you match your breathing. I find that even a few breaths clear my head and enable me to focus better. There are dozens of free, or nearly free, gadgets that can give you the same affect.
If there is that one nagging chore that is preventing you from focusing on all of the other chores, then get it out of the way. Chances are that you are focusing on it because it is either unpleasant or seems too trivial to bother with. If it is the latter, get it out of the way. It’s not trivial if it is preventing you from doing other tasks. If it the former, consider why it is unpleasant. Often, mildly disagreeable jobs become monsters in our minds. The longer they are not dealt with, the bigger they grow. If you’re able to do it immediately, get it over with so you can move on. If it has to wait for whatever reason, get it into perspective. It probably isn’t as bad as you think it will be.
And never underestimate the power of rewards. Even a short walk or a small treat can help you focus on the next project.
Although you may use this advice freely, the writing is copyrighted and may not be used without the express permission of Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh. Email me at email@example.com for more information.
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