Category Archives: writing rules

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

What is a weak thesis?

Many students don’t know the difference between a weak thesis and a strong thesis.  Here are some clues that show that an essay’s thesis is weak:

A thesis is weak if it is already known to be true, so there is nothing new to be explored.  For example,

  • Smoking is bad for human health.
  • Benjamin Franklin was an 18th century inventor.
  • The New England Patriots are a great football team.

A thesis is weak if it is a personal belief, not something to be investigated.  For example,

  • Summer is the best season.
  • Middle school is harder than elementary school.
  • Abraham Lincoln ranks number one among US Presidents.

The thesis is weak if it is too broad to be thoroughly investigated.

  • Hurricanes are dangerous storms.
  • Nancy drew books appeal to girls.
  • Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.

The thesis is weak if it does not make a claim needing to be proven.  For example,

  • Dr. Seuss wrote popular children’s books.
  • Being a police officer is both good and bad.
  • In chess, each piece moves in particular ways.

The thesis is weak if it is not controversial, not a statement over which people can disagree.

  • Barak Obama was the 44th President of the US.
  • No human being has lived for 130 years.
  • Alex Fleming’s discovery of penicillin mold was one the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century.

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 to use parentheses

Parentheses are marks of punctuation used to separate a word, phrase, or sentence from the rest of a sentence.  Here are some suggestions on how to use them.

parenthesesIf the parentheses contain words which are part of a sentence but not a complete sentence themselves, don’t use a period or a comma within the  parentheses.  The exception is when the words within the parentheses are a question or an exclamation.  Then use a question mark or an exclamation point as appropriate.

  • My mother (but not my father) has blue eyes.
  • Both of my mother’s parents had blue eyes (no surprise there!).

If the words in parentheses are a complete sentence, use punctuation at the end of the sentence, within the parentheses. 

  • My father and his mother had brown eyes. (But they each had at least one parent with blue eyes.)
  • My father’s father had blue eyes. (So why didn’t my father have one brown eye and one blue eye?)

Parentheses within parentheses can be grammatically correct, but they can be confusing to the reader.  It’s a good idea to rewrite those ideas using one or no parentheses.

  • I have brown eyes (the brown from my father (who probably had a recessive blue gene, like me)).
  • I have brown eyes.  The brown gene came from my father, who probably had a recessive blue gene, as I do.

When a name can be reduced to its initials, say the complete name first, and immediately after the name put the initials in parentheses.  Later, when you use the initials in place of the name, you need to use an article in front of the initials.

  • Both my mother’s parents were born in the United States (US), but neither of my father’s parents were born in the US.

When writing a research paper, you will be directed by your teacher to to use a particular style book.  That style book will have  information on how to use parentheses for citations and specific Latin abbreviations.  If you are not told to use a particular style book, you can use the Associated Press (A.P.) style book, or you can use a dictionary.  Name that book in the references part of your paper.

In general, it is better not to use parentheses if you can separate information with commas, or if you can rewrite idea to obviate the need for parentheses.  Too many parentheses can muddy the meaning, and the first rule in good writing is to be clear.

Is it okay to use bullets in academic writing? My kid’s seventh grade teacher forbids it.

That’s too bad because research shows that bulleted items are well-read.

  • Perhaps it is the white space preceding a bullet or following the bulleted item that draws the eye. White space is known to make writing look friendlier and less intimidating.
  • Or perhaps it is the brevity of most bulleted items that lures the reader.
  • It could also be the obvious organization that bullets imply.

Using bullets (called glyphs) is common in business and technical writing.  Bulleted items can be lists of words, sentences or paragraphs.  Go online and you can find many sites that offer advice on how to use bullets.

More recently bullets have become accepted in academic writing, but to be sure, check the style manual a discipline or teacher recommends.

This is a fifth grader's organizer for a story she wrote about meeting Harry Potter.

This is a fifth grader’s organizer for a story she wrote about meeting Harry Potter.

I checked the SAT website to see if bulleted items are allowed on the new SAT essay, but I couldn’t find an answer.  However, the rules explaining the new essay used several sets of bulleted items.

When doing power point presentations, students should use bullets in their slides, not sentences.  For example

Bears eat

  • berries
  • honey from bee hives
  • bird seed from bird feeders
  • fish

Students create Power Point projects all the time.  They need to learn this useful skill.  On science project presentations and on posters, bullets are more apt than paragraphs and are better read.

At your next teacher meeting you might ask your son’s teacher why she doesn’t allow bullets.  She might think that bullets are not formal enough for academic writing.  Wrong.  Or she might think that some students would turn in a laundry list of bullets rather than write fully developed paragraphs.  Right.  She would be better off teaching the proper use of bullets than forbidding them entirely since eventually almost all students use them.

Can sentences start with “because”? My son’s teacher says no.

“Because” is a word that is often misused in writing.  “Because” is a connecting word, connecting an independent clause with a dependent clause in a sentence.  If you use it, you must connect two ideas.  For example,

child writing in sleeping bag

I went to bed because I was tired.

“I went to bed” is the independent clause.  “Because I was tired” is the dependent clause.  “Because” is the connecting word.

Teachers tell students that they cannot start a sentence with “because.”  Actually, they can, if they connect the “because” clause to an independent clause.  For example,

Because I was tired, I went to bed.   (This is a perfectly good sentence.)

The problem is that many kids forget to add the independent clause.  Let’s look at three problems and how to solve them.

1.  Suppose a reading question asks you to tell why the dinosaurs died. You write, “Because a meteor hit the earth.”  This is a good fact but bad grammar.  “Because a meteor hit the earth” is not a sentence.  It is part of a sentence.  You need to add an independent clause to make it a complete sentence.  If you write, “Because a meteor hit the earth, the dinosaurs died,” now you have a sentence.

2.  If you find yourself starting what you think are sentences with the word “because,” there is an easy way to fix those mistakes. Just cross out the word “Because” and put a capital letter on the next word.

Why did Harry Potter go to Hogwarts School?

Because he wanted to be a wizard.  (Cross out Because and capitalize He.)

3.  Cause and Because are not the same thing. In writing, you cannot use “cause” if you mean “because.”  Cause is a verb or a noun.  Because is a subordinate conjunction (a connecting word.)

I went home cause I felt sick.  Wrong.  I went home because I felt sick.  Correct.

If you are writing dialog, write the way people speak even if their grammar is wrong.  Write ’cause when the speaker says “cause” meaning because.  The apostrophe indicates some letters are missing.

How many words are too many words?

“Write concisely” always appears on rules for good writing.  And some writers follow that rule.of-mice-and-men-book-cover

  • John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has 29,150 words. He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, has 26,601 words. He too won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Agatha Christie, the best-selling writer of all time, wrote novels averaging between 40,000 and 60,000 words, with female murderers’ stories usually using fewer words than male murders’ stories.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, required reading in many American high schools, has 47,094 words.persuasion-book-cover
  • K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel has about 77,000 words but her fifth and longest one has about 250,000 words—more than three times as many as her first.
  • Jane Austen, the second most widely known English writer today (Shakespeare is first), wrote Persuasion, considered her best novel by many critics, with 87,978 words.

But other writers have ignored the advice to write concisely, and they have done well for themselves.

  • Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has 183,858 words.
  • Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has around 349,700 words English translations and his War and Peace has between 561,000 and 587,000 words, depending on the translation.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind has 418,053 words. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

gone-with-the-wind-book-coverIs there an optimal number of words in novels?  It turns out publishers think so.

  • 20,000 to 55,000 is best for middle grades novels.
  • 60,000 words is best for young adult fiction.
  • 80,000 words is best for most general adult fiction, mystery fiction, and literary fiction. (Memoirs, which are nonfiction, also top off at 80,000 words.)
  • 110,000 words is the ideal length for sci-fi fiction and fantasy fiction.