Category Archives: compound sentence

Turning around student achievement through structured writing

Several years ago, a high school principal investigated why so many of her students were failing.  After staff-wide research, the reason became clear:  bad writing, an inability to turn thoughts into sentences, paragraphs and essays.  A rigorous program of writing in every subject except math ensued, and within two years, final statewide exam scores rose 10 to 20 points.

Teachers began this new program by teaching a simple skill:  how to turn ideas into simple sentences.  When students could do that, they learned how put ideas into compound and complex sentences.

Students learned how to identify the main idea in a paragraph next, and then how to write a paragraph with a main idea.  Once paragraphs were mastered, it was on to essays, learning how to develop an introduction and controlling idea (thesis) and how to write body paragraphs to back up that controlling idea.  Students learned how to incorporate details into their writing, especially examples.

What students were taught was to think critically through structured writing—a point of view with facts to back it up.  To do it well takes planning and organizing ideas.  It is the kind of writing which the Common Core State Standards expects all high school students to master.

To find out more about this amazing success story at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, go to Peg Tyre’s article in The Atlantic.  Though it was published five years ago, the story–and the method to improve thinking through structured writing–is just as relevant today.

“Automatic pilot” sentences can reveal character

Do you have “automatic pilot” sentences, the kind you use most of the time when you aren’t thinking about grammar or effect, the kind you use when you are speaking off the cuff or writing to a friend?  Most of us do.

Do you know that these “automatic pilot” sentences reveal how we think?  Take a look at the following sentences and some possible interpretations.

Dogs bark.   Simple sentence, subject followed by verb, no modifiers.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  Black and white thinker?

Some dogs bark, but not all dogs bark.  Compound sentence, simple grammar, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Clear thinker?  Simplistic thinker?  A thinker who hedges?  A thinker who repeats for emphasis?  A thinker who wants to prevent misunderstanding?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark.  Complex sentence, less important idea stated first, modifiers, repetition of idea.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  A thinker unwilling to impose views on others?

Although some dogs bark, not all dogs bark, and not all barking animals are dogs.  Compound-complex sentence, complex grammar, multiple qualifiers, repetition of idea, convoluted logic.  Complex thinker?  A thinker who hedges thoughts?  Muddled thinker?  An attorney?  A trickster?

When I talk to immigrants for whom English is not a first language, my automatic pilot sentences are short and usually simple or compound.  I use no contractions.  My vocabulary is basic unless I recognize that they are comfortable with English.  My sentences use active, not passive, verbs.  My sentences seem to show I am a simplistic thinker.

But when I speak to native born English speakers and especially to savvy adults, I speak in long and complicated automatic pilot sentences, like this one.  I use contractions and, unless I am talking to a child, an academic vocabulary.  My sentences seem to show that I am a complex, well educated thinker.

Take a look at an email you’ve written.  What do your automatic pilot sentences reveal about your mind?

To comma, or not to comma? That is the question.

Which way would you write this phrase:  “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?

In Maine, a court case involving around $10 million in back overtime pay came down to just this:  Is the comma before the word “and” needed in a series?

If you are thinking, “You gotta be kidding,” no I’m not.  The case of O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, settled this month in a US Appeals Court in Maine, focused on whether some drivers deserved overtime.  That decision—yes, they do deserve overtime– came down to the lack of a comma in one of Maine’s overtime laws.

Here is the Maine law stating which workers don’t deserve overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The problem is the lack of a comma after the word shipment.  Is the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” to be taken as a whole?  Or are the shipment and distribution two separate categories, neither of which deserves overtime?  If the law had a comma after the word shipment, distribution would not require overtime pay.

The court ruled that the lack of a comma after “shipment” made the law ambiguous even though it follows the written guidelines in the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual.  The court sided with the drivers distributing milk, saying they were entitled to overtime.

The AP Stylebook, which most reporters consult for grammar issues, says the final comma before “and” is not needed in most cases any more than is a comma needed for a two item series (bread and butter; not bread, and butter).  However, the style manuals used in colleges and universities do require the comma, and public schools where I live, in Georgia, teach that the comma is required.

There is a name for the comma before the word “and.”  It is called the Oxford comma.  I haven’t heard of a word for the lack of a comma, but for this discussion we might call it the AP comma rule.

Which practice do you use?  The Oxford comma?  The AP comma rule?  Usually I use the AP comma rule unless doing so leads to confusion.  Sometimes the AP comma rule can lead to what seems like an appositive rather than a continuation of a series, such as in “I want to thank my two political science teachers, President Obama and Hillary Clinton.”  If omitting the comma could lead to confusion, I include the comma.

The tendency in US writing is to leave out commas when the sentence is clear without punctuation.  For example, years ago I was taught that introductory adverbs like “now,” “later” and “then” need to be followed by a comma.  Yet the comma in “Then, I went home” seems silly.  I was also taught that compound sentences should use a comma after the first clause, but in the short sentence, “I fell and I hurt my leg,” a comma after “fell” seems ridiculous.

The first rule in writing anything is “Be clear.”  If leaving out a comma leads to ambiguity, use a comma. Otherwise, unless you are following a particular style book, the choice is yours.

By the way, when Shakespeare wrote “To be, or not to be,” in Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet, he used the Oxford comma.

When should I use a comma?

“When should I use a comma?” is the question about writing I am asked  more than any other.

student thinking about what to write

Below are the rules.  But experts disagree on many of them, and good writers ignore some of the rules.  If you are a student, ask your teacher what she expects.  Language is always changing, and that includes rules for writing language.  In general, as American English has become more informal, fewer commas are used today than in the past.

  • The rule: In a series of three (red, white, and blue), use two commas.  The practice:  Many people skip the comma before the word “and.”  They think, if I don’t need a comma between “white and blue,” why do I need one for “red, white and blue”?
  • The rule: In a compound sentence, a comma goes after the first clause.  (I like snow, so I like winter sports.)  In practice:  If the clauses are short, most good writers skip the comma if the meaning is clear.  If the clauses are long, they use the comma.
  • The rule: Use a comma after a stand-alone adverb which starts the sentence.  (First, let me eat.  Then, we can talk.)  The practice:  Sometimes the comma is used, but many times it is not if the meaning is clear.
  • The rule: When a dependent clause starts a sentence, end that clause with a comma before writing the independent clause.  (The previous sentence is an example of that.)  The practice:  Good writers follow this rule.  What if the first clause is the independent clause?  No comma is needed.  Students make lots of mistakes with this rule, especially when using the word “because.”
  • The rule: When you start a sentence with “because,” you cannot put a period at the end of that clause.  Instead, you must end that clause with a comma and continue the sentence with an independent clause.  The practice:  Teachers tell students they can’t start sentences with “because” to avoid students’ writing fragments.   Of course, you can start a sentence with almost any word, including “because,” if you use correct sentence structure and punctuation.
  • The rule: Appositives require commas before and after.  (My teacher, Mrs. Smith, gives lots of homework.)  If an appositive ends the sentence, then the “after” comma becomes a period.  The practice:  Commas are often not used with appositives.
  • The rule: The identity of the person speaking a direct quote needs to be set off with a comma.  (Mom said, “Eat your dinner.”  “Eat your dinner,” Mom said.)  If the spoken words end with a question mark or exclamation point, then the comma is not used.  (“Look!” said Mom.  “Where?” I asked.)  The practice:  Most good writers use this rule.  If the quote is indirect, commas might or might not be needed.  (Eat your dinner, my mother said.  I said I would.)
  • The rule: Between cities, states and countries commas are needed, but not between states and zip codes.  The practice:  This rule is used.
  • The rule: Between days of the week, dates, and years, commas are needed.  (My vacation stopped on Saturday, August 13, 2016, when I returned home.)  Notice that if the date does not end the sentence, a comma is required after the date or year.   The practice:  This rule is followed by good writers.
  • The rule:  If just a month and year are used, no comma is required.  (He graduated in May 2016.)  The practice:  This rule is generally used, but some grammar books require a comma in the last sentence.  (He graduated in May, 2016).
  • The rule: If “yes” or “no” begin a sentence, those words are followed by a comma.  (Yes, I can hear you.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: When speaking directly to someone, a comma is used before or after the person’s name.  (Lou, come here.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: To offset a negative phrase, commas are used before and after.  (I saw Annushka, not Sei, at the movies.)  The practice:  This rule is followed.
  • The rule: For house numbers, no comma is needed.  But for other numbers of a thousand or more, commas are needed to separate every three numerals beginning from the right or decimal point.  The practice:  This rule is followed.

If you are using a grammar book as a reference, check the date.  Older versions require more commas.  If you are using a source from outside the US (English booklets prepared by a foreign company, for example), more commas will be required.  If you are a high school or college student, ask your teacher which style book he or she will use to grade your work and follow that style book’s rules.

“Then” is not a conjunction. And usually “then” is not needed.

“Then” is an adverb and cannot be used as a conjunction, even though many of my students think it can.

Wrong:  I went swimming, then I took a shower.

Right:  I went swimming, and then I took a shower.

One way to show that “then” is not a conjunction is to move it around in the sentence.  “I went swimming, I took a shower then.”  “I went swimming, I then took a shower.”  You can see that these would-be compound sentences are actually run-ons even with the word “then” in the sentence.  They need a coordinating conjunction such as “and” or a subordinate conjunction such as “before.”

Many students use “then” as the first word of a sentence to show a time sequence or a transition from one idea to the next.  Students might need to do this as they write down events in chronological order.  But often they overuse the word “then,” with some students starting almost every sentence with that word.  An easy way to deal with this problem is to let the student write “then” all she wants in her first draft.  During revision, have her circle every “then” and cross out all but one. Let her choose which one stays.

Some grammar books indicate that “then” should be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence, or when it interrupts a thought.  A comma indicates a pause in thinking or in speaking, and since we Americans don’t usually pause after the word “then,” it is rarely necessary.

“Then” is one of many overused words by students, along with “so,” “just,” “like” and “and.”  Usually when students are made aware that they are overusing a word, they self-edit, but sometimes it takes several revisions to prove that they overuse certain words.

Also, “then” and “than” are not synonyms.  “Then,” like “when,” indicated time.  “Than” indicated comparisons.


Use expanded sentences to add informality to writing

An expanded sentence is one that begins as a simple, compound or complex sentence but then adds additional information, sometimes with phrases and sometimes with clauses, mimicking the way we speak. Here are some examples.three examples of expanded sentences

In the past, writing was more formal than spoken language, and to a degree it still is, even in the US. While we say, “It’s me,” in formal writing we are expected to write, “It is I.” Most of us say “who” when we mean “whom” and say “hafta go” when we would write “have to go.” But in the late 20th century, writing became more informal. One example is that today the word “you” is allowed in essays.

What is happening? Modern-day writing is following the lead of spoken language, becoming more like it. When we speak, we often start with a simple idea (Gershwin wrote many songs), but then we add to those words as we are thinking (Gershwin wrote many songs, such as Summertime, I’ve Got Rhythm and Swanee, becoming the best song writer of the 1920’s—although Cole Porter fans might disagree).

The effect of expanded sentences is to create informal writing. The sentences sound friendly, not academic. These sentences are often easier to understand than complex sentences of the past with many subordinate ideas. They have an easy-going, relaxed quality to them which puts us at ease.

One way to practice writing these kinds of sentences is to type them on your computer and one by one change the words, keeping the grammar and flow but changing the meaning.expanded sentence practice

A caution:  An expanded sentence is not a compound sentence with several independent thought sadded on. (I went to the store, and I bought a candy bar, and I ate the candy bar, and it was delicious.)  It can include a compound sentence, the but add-ons vary in type.

It’s spring. Update your writing with some bright, extended sentences.

Combine sentences to improve the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.

In addition to eliminating sentences, combining two or more sentences usually reduces the number of total words in an essay; it also reduces the number of sentences. This causes the number of words per sentence to rise slightly.

I ask students to combine sentences without using “and,” “but,” and “so” to avoid adding more compound sentences to the essay. Students can easily combine sentences, but they cannot easily combine them without using coordinating conjunctions. I work with students on using subordinate conjunctions, relative pronouns, and gerund and participle phrases.

Combining sentences in an essay by a six grader.

Here are revisions that combine sentences about a swim meet by a sixth grader:

Students start by figuring out the number of words in each sentence and writing those numbers in the margins of their essays next to the sentences. Students look for small numbers indicating short sentences. Usually, but not always, the short sentences need to be next to each other in order to combine them. Always they need to be in the same paragraph.

When the student finds a short sentence, he reads nearby sentences to see if the two sentences can be combined. Not all neighboring sentences can be combined. They need to be close in topic, or show some kind of relationship—a cause and effect, a sequence, or a dialog by the same person, for example. If the sentences seem related, the students and I discuss how they could be combined. Beginning writing students almost always suggest “and,” “but” and “so,” since these are the connecting words they normally use (and the words their school teachers suggest).

When I suggest alternatives, I need to keep in mind what will sound normal to a student of a particular age. What improvements I can suggest to a younger student, or to an ESL student are often more limited than what I can suggest to an older or more widely read student.

“Sometimes my little sister asks a silly question. I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” How can these eight and ten-word sentences, respectively, be combined? I might suggest adding the word “when” after the word “sometimes.” “Sometimes when my little sister asks a silly question, I say a silly answer and she laughs at me.” For a younger student, combining a simple sentence with a compound sentence to form a complex-compound sentence is a big improvement in sentence structure. It also produces a 19-word sentence that sounds normal to a third grader’s ear.

How about this example? “First, snowball fighting. We had the fight in our front yard. I was the one who made perfectly round snowballs.” The third-grader who wrote this fragment followed by two tiny sentences changed them to “First, my brothers and I had a snowball fight in our front yard where I made perfectly round snowballs.”

In our next blog we’ll talk about another way to revise sentences: adding more details in order to increase the number of words per sentence and to improve sentence structure.