Parallel Structures: Examples from MLK

The previous Tricks of the Trade article explained applications of parallel sentence structures for creating flowing, rhythmic writing. Now, in this new Tricks of the Trade article, I want to share examples of parallel structures at work in the prose of a powerful, canonical essayist. I am

using Martin

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

My dedication to MLK in Minecraft

Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as our ongoing example for Tricks of the Trade, since King’s essay showcases all of the techniques discussed in this series—and since it uses each of these techniques many times over. Let’s turn once again to MLK’s classic civil rights essay as we explore examples of parallel structure at work.

About reading these passages: I have color coded the parallel structures within the passages below. In some passages, you might notice two or more colors. Each color is a different parallel structure pattern within the example.

Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own hometown.

The sentence below (which occurs several pages after the example sentence above) uses the same parallel structure seen above by using the phrase “just as”—but this time King uses the phrase to establish a parallel between his actions and those of the ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates. This repeated phrase, “just as,” shows how parallel structures can link ideas across different sentences, paragraphs, and pages. From there, MLK will use another parallel structure for comparing the actions of nonviolent resisters to the teachings of Socrates:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King also uses parallel structures from sentence to sentence to showcase the larger thematic unity those sentences share. Here’s an example:

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God-consciousness and never-ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion?

By the way, have you noticed the repetition of Christian and Socratic themes in these passages? King brings up Jesus and Socrates quite often in this essay. Why? Considering King’s original audience (eight clergymen who had spoken out against his actions in Birmingham), these two examples from religion and western culture are perfectly fitting. They are precisely the best examples that King could have used for winning over his audience. In the course of his letter/essay, King also invokes the the Founding Fathers, the Apostle Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, John Bunyan, and Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think King uses such a range of (white and Jewish) figures to validate the points he makes in this essay? This side-note takes us back to the first trick of the trade: writing for our audience. If you missed that (crucial) article, click here to read it.

In addition to using parallel structures to organize and align long sentences (as seen above), King also uses parallel structures in short sentences—and to great effect. Consider this famous sentence drawn from King’s essay:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Here are more short sentences with parallel structures:

Example:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

Example:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

Example:

All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.

A Few More Examples from MLK

Here are more examples of parallel structure within “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that I find especially powerful. Read these passages aloud, and as you do so, feel their undeniable passion and power.

Example:

Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Example:

You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping “order” and “preventing violence.” I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

Example:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts, and pray long prayers?

Example:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

That last example illustrates how, by being nearly the same, parallel structures emphasize their seemingly small differences. Why is the use of God in place of you effective in that second parallel structure? What statement does that small change make? What is the greater evil, in MLK’s eyes: to be impatient for one’s rights–or to wait too long? King gives us the answer: it’s right there in the small one-word difference between those two parallel structures. Read it again and consider this point.

Next Up:

Diction: Finding the Best Words

Although the way we structure our sentences is important (as we have seen), equally important are the words we use within those sentences. With that point in mind, the next set of articles in Tricks of the Trade will help you strengthen your word choices by sharing specific methods for finding the best words to convey your ideas and assertions.

  • Diction: Finding the Best Words (I will post this article soon.)

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Parallel Structures–Writing with Rhythm

Whenever you include multiple items or clauses in a long sentence, write them all with similar word and phrase patterns. Long sentences that do not have these parallel structures are often hard to follow.

For example, here is a sentence that is difficult to read:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, chess, his friends, to play his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

The writer did not use parallel structures for expressing these items. The ideas unify in a thematic sense (since they are all activities Bob enjoys), but the writing does not reflect that unity. The sentence can be adjusted to align content (what is said) with style (how it is said). The writer can do this by using a parallel gerund pattern. (A gerund is formed by adding –ing to the end of a verb so that the word then functions as something else, usually a noun.)

Here is the resulting sentence, with the parallel gerund pattern underlined:

Bob enjoys many activities: going hiking, playing chess, hanging out with his friends, playing his old Nintendo, and reading detective novels.

This sentence can be improved further by beginning with the shortest item and progressing towards the longest one. This way, there is yet another pattern:

Bob enjoys many activities: playing chess, going hiking, reading detective novels, playing his old Nintendo, and hanging out with his friends.

This sentence provides an even better reading experience than the first revision because now it has an ordered pattern. Sentences that show patterns are easier to read than those that are random and chaotic. On top of that, parallel structures let writers take control of long sentences. With parallel structures in your sentences, you’ll write much longer sentences than you may have thought you could—and those sentences, despite their length, will be surprisingly easy to read.

In addition to helping present phrase items in a series (as seen above), parallel structures are useful for presenting sentences with multiple clauses. Here is an example of parallel structure using clauses:

Although Bob enjoys many leisure activities, and although he has many friends, most of his time is spent focusing on his career.

Notice how both dependent clauses in the example above begin with the word although. This creates a pattern, and it holds the reader’s attention, even in a long sentence. Read the sentence aloud; do you hear the rhythm?

Here is another example. However, this new parallel structure uses to before each verb. (This “to + verb” formation is called the infinitive form.)

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: to reason with sound logic, to communicate with clear language, and to empathize with thoughtful appeals.

The writer could convert the infinitive pattern to an –ing (gerund) pattern:

A strong writer seeks to achieve three main goals: reasoning with sound logic, communicating with clear language, and empathizing with thoughtful appeals.

(What additional change was made? Consider this point.)

Parallel Structures: A Stunning Example from MLK

Utilizing parallel structures can create much longer sentences than the examples shared above. For example, look at the sentence below, written by Martin Luther King, Jr., and as you do so, behold the unbridled power and unadulterated majesty of parallel structures:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are), and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will know why we find it difficult to wait.

Powerful, isn’t it? What is the parallel structure here? What are the words that King repeats in every dependent clause? What effects do they have on you as you read? Think about these points as you consider the power and effectiveness of parallel sentence structures.

Next Up: More Examples from MLK

As we have done in previous Tricks of the Trade articles, we will look once again to the writing of MLK–this time for examples of parallel structures at their best. If you want to observe the effective use of parallel structures within sentences, you need look no further than the prose of MLK.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Clayborne Carson. New York: Warner Books, 1998. 188-204. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Addressing Counterarguments

In the first Tricks of the Trade article, “Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader,” we discussed how all good writing begins with writing for an actual reader.

Here is one important point about that reader: sometimes, your reader will come across some point you have made and think, “Wait—I disagree with this point!” If the reader is left to his own devices, his own counterarguments will convince him that your arguments do not work. When this happens, the writing—which should convince the reader of your view—only serves to further entrench the reader in his own view.

How can you prevent this from occurring? Simple: Take on those counterarguments in your writing. Do not ignore them. Confront them. Tackle them. If you don’t, these counterarguments will destroy your desired effect: convincing the reader.

The difficult part is finding those counterarguments—and doing so before your reader does. Generating these hypothetical counterarguments requires a degree of imagination, and maybe a degree of research. It certainly requires a degree of empathy—and, harder yet, empathy for those who disagree with your position. Admittedly, this level of empathy can be a difficult quality to attain. Fortunately, though, there are some approaches to achieving this empathy in your writing so that you can address likely counterarguments.

One great way to come up with counterarguments is to find a friend who will disagree with your points. Show that friend your draft, or even your outline. If, for example, you are writing a paper that expresses a fiscally liberal worldview, find a friend who tends to hold conservative views. Say, “Hey, would you mind reading this, and telling me what you think about some of the arguments?” If you have access to a chat program—like AIM or Skype—you can even record the conversation and transcribe it into notes.

Also, reading responses to online blogs, articles, and similar postings is a great way to find everyday counterarguments. But be careful: the arguments people make are not always very strong, and you want to present counterarguments that are reasonable. For that reason, you may want to consider the articles of experts and professional writers as well. The last thing you want is to insult those readers who disagree with your position by implying, “Hey, I think you—and others who hold your view—would make a horrible argument like the one seen here, an argument that anyone can easily dismiss.”

To present a weak counterargument in this way and then to argue against it is called a Straw Man Argument. It is a type of fallacy—a weakness in the reasoning or logic of an argument. (Logically enough, the name of this particular fallacy is the “straw man fallacy.”) Think about the name: straw man argument. It is the rhetorical equivalent of someone building a man of straw and then defeating it in “combat.” I put “combat” in quotes, because fighting a straw man is not really combat at all, since the straw man does not fight back. To defeat a straw man is to accomplish very little. Likewise, to present a weak counterargument and then to dismiss it is to accomplish very little to win over your reader. Your quest as a writer is not to take convenient swings at straw men; your quest is to slay dragons.

Crafting and Responding to Counterarguments

To support a thesis, the writer must think about counterexamples and counterarguments that could be brought against her assertion. For example, imagine that a student is writing an essay against the discriminatory treatment of Muslims in post 9-11 America. Here are some counterarguments (left column) and the responses to those counterarguments (right column):

Counterarguments

My Responses to Counterarguments

This is what my opponent will say. . . .

And this is how I will respond to the counterargument. . . .

Some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations—so why shouldn’t we discriminate against them for the purpose of protecting ourselves? Yes, but some Christians also commit acts of terrorism. Consider the bombings of abortion clinics; this is terrorism based upon a belief or conviction, just like the terrorism of militant Muslims. All terrorism is bad, regardless of who commits it.
We live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—why, then, is discrimination an issue with such a relatively small group? Don’t we practice this in elections, to some degree, when the majority wins the day? Discrimination against Muslims in America is an important problem to address, because America is based upon the belief in the religious rights of the individual. If only one person is a Muslim in America, then he should not be discriminated against; this is the freedom of religion that America stands for.

Do you see how this works? Think in terms of an opponent—one who is actively thinking about your assertions. Make up an opponent in your mind and have him criticize your argument. Think about the gaps and seeming contradictions in your argument and how you can account for them with logical responses. Ideally, your writing should be a combination of your own original arguments and your arguments that are in response to hypothetical opponents. Think in terms of these steps:

  1. Introduce and write your thesis: Make your assertion; express your position.
  2. Write out your arguments, and as you do so, think of the ways your hypothetical opponent could argue against your arguments. This step is not actually the first draft of your paper, but prewriting—brainstorming: gathering ammunition for your argument.
  3. Respond to the hypothetical responses. You may even want to write the counterarguments in full within your paper so you can respond to them. One great way to introduce your opponent’s responses is to say:  “At this point, someone might argue X.”

Here are two (of many) ways to pose a counterargument in your writing:

  • At this point, one might argue X; however, X is not the case because Y.

Example: At this point, some readers might argue that some Muslims commit acts of terrorism against Christian populations, and that because of these crimes, Americans have the right to discriminate against Muslims in certain cases; however, if we take this argument as being valid, we would also be permitted to discriminate against Christians for the terrorist attacks on abortion clinics by a few extreme fundamentalist Christians. When all is said and done, we should discriminate against neither Christian nor Muslim for the acts of a few extremists.

  • At this point, some might argue X, and they would be right if Y. However, Y is not the case here. So, X must be erroneous, at least in this case.

Example: At this point, some may be tempted to justify discrimination against Muslims, saying that we live in a country in which there are very few Muslims in comparison to Christians—and they would be right if America was not founded upon the principle that we should protect minorities and their beliefs from being marginalized by the majority. I, for one, am thankful that America is based upon the principle of equality, and that people here are free to be the individuals they want to be.

One Last Point: Writing = Conversation

Move away from the notion that writing is simply putting your ideas and assertions on paper. While it does include your ideas and assertions, writing is a quest to win your reader over to those ideas and assertions–and to do that, you must think of writing as a conversation with your reader. Always be aware that your readers are actively thinking about what you are saying and that they are responding to it in their minds as they read. Being aware of this dimension of writing—and responding to it—is the stuff of advanced writing. One essential step to attaining this reader-oriented view of writing is to think in terms of argument, counterargument, and response. Make your reader feel well served by acknowledging other viewpoints and counterarguments that may arise as you make your own argument. As you continue to hone this writing practice, your writing will take on an entirely new level of persuasion and impact.

What better time to start than now?

Next Up:

Counterarguments: Examples from MLK

For purposes of clarity, this article has isolated counterarguments as examples by pulling them from their original context. But now that you know what a counterargument is, the best way to see the full effect of the counterargument is to view it within the context of the larger argument. The next Tricks of the Trade article gives a bit more of that context by sharing counterarguments drawn from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” MLK’s letter, often anthologized as an essay, stands as a powerful example of how the counterargument can act not only as a positive rhetorical feature, but also as the driving force for movement and argumentation within the essay.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Sentences

Whenever you shift the discussion in a new sentence, you need to make a clear transition. Never drop your readers. Keep them reading.

But how do we keep them reading? Look at the example below, drawn from a student essay. Notice how these two sentences lack transition:

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

Do you see ways to make a transition here? Here are the three main methods:

1. Combine the sentences into one, and let that single sentence act as the bridge from one point into the next.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, but scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The coordinating conjunction but creates the transition.)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom; however, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The conjunctive adverb however combines these sentences. It’s similar to but; however, it shows more of a pause than but does. Read the sentence aloud. Do you hear that brief but thoughtful pause?)

Although many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(The relative adverb although makes the first sentence into a dependent relative clause. This has the same overall effect as but or however, but the sentence is intoned differently. Do you hear it? Has the emphasis changed a bit? What is prioritized in this sentence?)

2. Keep the sentences separate, but put a word or phrase in the second sentence that refers back to the first one.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Still, scientists think it is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A single word can create a transition. Amazing isn’t it: the difference one word makes?)

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Despite this position among some religious communities, scientists think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(A phrase or clause may be necessary if you want a more substantial connection.)

3. Insert an entire sentence between the two sentences to connect them.

Many Americans propose that Creationism should be taught in the science classroom. Such proponents include conservative-Christian parents, pastors, and politicians, but—since this is a discussion about science—we should ask what scientists have to say about the issue. The overwhelming majority of them think Creationism is better suited to the religion or philosophy classroom.

(Do you sense a bit more persuasive push here? Consider how the writer created this new tone. Also, apply this longer approach when you want a fully explained transition. Never hesitate to lay out all of the details, if you feel that it is necessary.)

So, do you want to use method 1, 2, or 3? Which one is best?

The answer, as you may have guessed by now, is that there is no best method. The method you choose depends on your intention as a writer and the degree to which you want to connect the two ideas or statements. And sometimes, you should consider unconventional methods, such as the transition I created in this sentence (yes, the one you are reading right now). Notice how I opened that new sentence with the coordinating conjunction and. Although I did not use it to fully combine two sentences (by using a comma + and combination), I started the new sentence with and to create a small reference back to the previous point. There are many other ways to create transition; as you continue to write and to hone your transitions, you will naturally add new transition tools to your writer’s toolbox.

At this point, some readers might be thinking, “Wait–I shouldn’t start sentences with words like and or but! My teachers constantly told me never to do that.” If you picked up this particular writing prohibition somewhere along the course of your life, you have been misinformed. Most people learn this false rule in elementary school or middle school, when such absolute rules held meaning for teaching children the basics of writing. But now as an adult writer, it’s time to progress beyond the rules of childhood writing so that you can embrace the limitless world of true effective writing.

If you feel your writing process being hindered and halted by such rules, you should read my new book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English. It addresses this sentence-starting conjunction myth, as well as many other writing myths learned in childhood. If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to the book’s introduction:

Two Kinds of Sentence-to-Sentence Transitions: Positive vs. Negative

Here is one additional point to note about sentence transitions: there are two types of connections to make: positive and negative. In the examples above, we have been dealing with a negative connection, or one that shows a contradiction or difference between two points–what we might call but or however points.

Now let’s explore positive connections. Positive connections show the idea of “in addition to” or “also.” Positive transitions show how the two ideas you are expressing are alike. Here is an example:

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. So too do many conservative-Christian parents.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom, and many conservative-Christian parents do this as well.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom; in addition, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice.

Pastors and other religious leaders call for the teaching of Creationism in the science classroom. Following the example of their religious leaders, many conservative-Christian parents call for this practice as well.

Here are some words and phrases for expressing positive connections:

and     in addition     also     another      as well      furthermore      moreover

Negative: A transition that shows a contradiction or difference between two points. Here are some words and phrases for expressing negative connections:

but     yet     however     conversely     despite     on the other hand     although

So, here is the first question to ask yourself: “Is the connection I hope to show positive, or is it a negative connection?

Here’s the second question to ask: “To what degree (and with what tone) do I want to show this connection?”

Once you have the answer to those two questions, you will know what to do, so long as you remember some of these transition techniques.

Next Up: Dealing with Readers’ Counterarguments

Have you ever been reading an essay or article, and you find yourself disagreeing with what the reader says in a sentence or paragraph? Or did you find that the writer did not address a matter that you thought was important to the discussion? Did the writer’s failure to address such points cause you to disbelieve the writer’s main point? Or, even if you did buy into the main point, were you still a bit less convinced than you might have been, had the writer addressed those nagging points?

Well, dear reader, here’s some bad news: your readers will judge your writing the same way, since they will expect you to address their concerns, doubts, and disagreements—and if you don’t address those matters, chances are, your writing will not achieve full success.

But here’s the good news: there’s a technique for handling these matters in writing, and it’s a technique you can hone with practice. It’s a way not only to redirect the reader’s doubts and disagreements, but also to create even more transition and continuity in your writing. I call that technique “addressing counterarguments.” In fact, for the best writers, addressing counterarguments is often the driving force behind the flow of the writing: the way the writing progresses from paragraph to paragraph, discussion to discussion, topic to topic. Want to learn more? Click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Technique Number One: Imagine and Project a Reader

Look again at the title of this article. I describe this writing practice as “Technique Number One” because writing for an actual reader is the driving force behind all of the other techniques discussed in this Tricks of the Trade series. Think about it: as writers, we should create flow in our writing for our readers. We use clear word choices to get our ideas across clearly to our readers. We use parallel sentence structures to help keep our readers on track. Essentially, good writing is all about the effects we have on our readers. Whether we’re making a sentence more concise and logical or making the choice to add a new paragraph discussion, every choice we make as writers is ultimately for the purpose of better reaching and winning over our readers.

But what does it mean to “imagine and project a reader”? It’s simple: when you write, don’t think so much about the many rules you have learned about grammar, spelling, sentence length, etc. Sure, those rules have their place (well, some of them do, anyway), but that place is secondary to a higher purpose: affecting your readers in the way(s) that you hope to affect them. With that larger goal in mind, consider the fact that an actual human being–or group of human beings!–will be reading what you are writing.

Think about who those human beings are. Are they Americans, or are you writing for an international audience? Are they adults, or are they children–or young adults? Do they have college educations? Are they informed on the topic–or do you need to get them up to speed? Are they religious or nonreligious—or is it a mix? What are their social and/or political views? Do they belong to a certain profession? Write with these considerations in mind.

Writing for Your Audience: An Example

In some cases, you will know a bit about your reading audience. For example, if writing an essay for an engineering professor, you know a bit about that audience. You know that your audience is well informed, and you also know the field in which your audience works. So, with that reader in mind, here’s the key question to ask yourself while writing that essay: “What is important to an engineer?” You might also ask yourself the broader question: “What is important to any professor?” With those points in mind, you’d best get your math right, you should present clear diagrams and research, and you’d better not have any typos. (After all, engineers are looking for a close attention to details, and that includes proofreading and keeping the writing typo-free!)

Last, but certainly not least, you will need to produce content that your audience (in this case, an engineering professor) will find intriguing but also one that is based on the lessons learned in the course. One great way to make that essay intriguing would be to go one step beyond what the professor taught you about the topic. If, for example, the professor taught you how to apply hydrodynamics to better understand plumbing installed in a skyscraper, then you might take that concept and apply it elsewhere by writing an essay on the hydrodynamics of underground structures. Would your professor like that move? Would she appreciate you taking what she taught you and applying it to your own areas of interest? Chances are, she would–but there’s also a chance that she would want you to stick with the core material in the course, including the applications. This is where knowing your audience is useful. Did you ever hear her say, “Plumbing is only one example of hydrodynamics at work. I challenge you to think of other areas where we see it.” If she said that (or something close), then it’s safe to say that you kn0w what to write for her.

Ever aware of my audience, I know that many of my readers are not college students. However, the same basic concept applies: if you know your audience, write accordingly. If you are writing to your boss in hopes of a promotion, think about your boss’s expectations. (You might also think about the larger company and its expectations.) If you are writing to a senator asking him to support your cause, consider his platform and his political philosophies. If you are writing a letter to a friend who has lost a parent, then write with your friend’s personality in mind. Think about what makes her laugh. Think about shared experiences that might cheer her up. Think about whether she is the kind of person who desires a show of sympathy in times of loss or whether she just prefers to talk about other (happier) topics. No matter the writing situation, use whatever you know about your reader to win that reader over to your desired effect for the writing.

(A related note for college students: As a professor–and as someone who knows many other professors–I can say that most professors like to see their students take core concepts beyond what is taught in the course. This is one key difference between high-school-level thinking and the thinking we expect to see in college-level work: while professors do want to see students learn facts, those facts are often worthless if they are not applied elsewhere. Most professors are not looking for regurgitation of basics; we are hoping that our students take the lessons of the course to heart and allow those lessons to change the ways that they think about other matters.)

But What if I Don’t Know Who My Audience Is?

In other cases, you will have no clue who your precise audience is, so you will write for a broad audience. Here’s the good news: there are many writing practices that work for all audiences. In such cases, the only assumption you should make is that your reader will be attentive and will try to read your essay fully and carefully. In other words, the one thing you do know is this: your reader is a reader.

So what it is that all readers need and appreciate? The best way to answer this question is to apply the “Golden Rule of Writing”:

The Golden Rule of Writing: Write for others the way that you would want them to write for you.

In other words, think about the kind of reading experience you would like to have when reading. You want to read writing that flows naturally and is easy to read. You want to read writing that is typo-free. You want to read writing that makes intriguing and even life changing points. You want the writer’s jokes to make you laugh (and you want them to be jokes that make you laugh until you piss yoursel—um. . . I mean, that make you laugh yourself silly!). With those points in mind, write to create the very same kind of reading experience you would appreciate if you were the one reading. Chances are, when it comes to basic expectations for the reading experience, your readers are a lot like you. Think about what those readers want, need, and expect–and write accordingly.

This is the number-one rule of all good writing. If you aren’t doing this, you aren’t really writing.

Next Up:

Transition: Making It Flow

As you read about the Tricks of the Trade techniques in upcoming articles, consider how all of these techniques fall under the overarching writing practice of imagining and serving your readers. The next article on creating flow and transition is a good example. As you read about ways to create transition in your writing, consider the reason for creating transition: to serve your readers with the same kind of natural, flowing writing that you would want to read.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


When Commas Collide: Confusion over Closely Placed Commas

Once again, here are the four essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set off modifying clauses and phrases from the main message of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

4. Commas separate items in lists.

Sometimes these comma functions run together. The untrained eye sees commas as just that: a bunch of commas. The reader—at least at first glance—does not see how two commas in a sentence are setting off an interrupting phrase, while another nearby set of commas is separating items in a list. He sees only one running group of commas, but that grouping makes no sense.

I contend that these situations are to blame for the generally held myth that commas are confusing and too variable to understand. In reality, commas are simple–that is, once we understand the essential roles they play in sentences. Still, even if commas are simple to the well trained writer, they may not be so simple to our readers.  With that point in mind, keeping commas from running together is the writer’s responsibility.

What do I mean by the notion of commas running together? An example will serve best:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising.

Now, notice that these commas occur in relatively close proximity of each other. This might cause the reader to think, for example, that I am setting off the phrase, “teaches courses,” from the main line of the sentence. But that’s not at all what I am doing. Those two commas are not acting as a paired group to set off “teaches courses.” Just to know for sure, let’s remove the phrase to see if it is not part of the sentence’s main line:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, but he performs other duties, . . .

Yuck!–That omission didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work because those two commas—although very close in proximity—are not working together to set off the phrase “teaches courses.” Those commas are performing two separate roles. The first comma (the one before teaches) is acting as the closing comma for setting off the phrase “like most educators” from the main line of the sentence. It applies backward to the previous phrase—not forward to the following one. The second comma (the one that occurs between educators and but) serves the role of strengthening the conjunction but as a sentence combiner.

In other words, when confused by closely placed comma groups, the reader sees this . . .

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the red parts, and the sentence makes zero sense.)

. . . and not the intended message:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the green parts, and the sentence makes perfect sense–even if it’s a little less detailed.)

Let’s remove those (green) groups to see if we are left with a sentence that flows and makes sense:

Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, student advising.

That reads perfectly well. Now we are seeing the comma groups correctly, as the omissions above confirm. However, seeing those groups correctly takes some effort, so our readers may not see those groups as we intend. Also, removing these modifying phrases is simply a test for identifying comma groups; the writer should not remove them in the finished sentence. Think about it: the writer was inclined to include these points to write a detailed, fully qualified statement. With that goal in mind, is there a way to keep the qualifying, modifying phrases, while avoiding comma confusion?

Sure there is! Let’s use some simple techniques to make the intended message clear:

Like most educators, Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties: course planning, committee work, and–last but not least–student advising. (Ah-ha!)

Here’s what I did:

1. I reordered parts of the sentence to eliminate the need for mid-sentence interrupters. (I moved the phrase “like most educators” to the beginning of the sentence.)

2. I used a colon to introduce the list of Professor Pierson’s tasks (instead of using including–which requires a comma). In effect, this replacement eliminates the need for yet another cluttered comma. (A colon is one dot above the other: quite the useful writing technique. I will discuss it further in the Writer’s Toolbox series on advanced punctuation.)

3. I used dashes instead of commas to set off the modifying phrase “last but not least” within the list. This way, the modifying phrase is not seen as another item in the comma-separated list. Also, since dashes often create a spontaneous tone for the parts they set off, they are more fitting to the sentence’s style.

An Analogy for Avoiding Comma Confusion

Here is an analogy for understanding comma clutter: when a sentence becomes cluttered with commas, it is the equivalent of two employees from different companies, who—as chance would have it—are working in town within just a few feet of one another. Understandably, a passerby might mistakenly think that they are working together on the same project, when they are really performing two completely separate tasks.

The solution? Simple: just put the two workers in different uniforms. That way,  people will not become confused as to the companies the workers represent.

Sentences are the same way. When I have many groupings of words, clauses, lists, and phrases in one sentence, I need to put those different workers in distinctive uniforms so that my reader will not become confused as to what those workers are doing. That’s where the writer’s toolbox comes in: the more the writer knows about dashes, colons, parentheses, and other writing tools, the more options she has for developing accurate, crystal-clear sentences.

Next Up: More on Alternative Punctuation

I have mentioned how dashes and parentheses can act as alternatives to commas, particularly for purposes of avoiding comma confusion. But what else do these specialized forms of punctuation do? To learn more, see the next article.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Other Comma Separations

In addition to separating items in lists, commas separate other things. For example, commas separate elements within a date, specifically the day of the month and the year:

Christopher Altman’s birthday is November 18, 1977.

Do you hear the pause between “18” and “1977”? Do you hear the slight change in pitch? That single comma creates both of those effects. Comma functions often overlap in this way.

I should also mention that November 18 is my actual birthday. Mark it on your calendar and send me a present when that date rolls around. And when you send me that computer or flat-screen TV (okay, okay–I’ll settle for a good book!), make sure to note that I live in Syracuse, NY—and don’t forget that comma between city and state.

Commas Make Long Numerical Expressions Easy to Read

Commas also serve an important but often under appreciated function in writing large numbers: they separate numbers into sets of three digits to help the reader differentiate between large number groups like millions, billions, trillions, and so on. Here is an example of a number without commas:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40927943.00.

Ugh. That’s hard to read. Now, try this one:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40,927,943.00

Unless you are very good with numbers, I expect you had a great deal of trouble figuring out if that first number was in the 40 millions or the 400 millions. In fact, I’ll wager that many readers attempting to identify that comma-less number would identify it by mentally grouping the numbers, from right to left, into sets of three. The comma does that for the reader, allowing her to know the identity of large numbers, at a glance. Yet again—even with numerical expressions—the comma functions to serve our readers. (Note: a space does not follow a comma within a number.)

As a courtesy to our readers, we should apply this rule even to easy-to-read four-digit numbers:

In November, my delighted readers are going to send me that flat-screen television–one that costs over $6,000.00!

(Why do I get the feeling that I’m far more likely to find a 6,000-page book in my mailbox in November?)

Next Up: When Commas Collide

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses, commas are useful, indeed essential, to clear, effective writing, another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

Did you find the previous sentence confusing? I’ll bet you did. Here’s why: comma confusion. All of the commas that appear in that sentence are serving legitimate comma functions. The issue is that those functions are colliding, causing the reader to become confused between the different commas and their separations.

Here is a revised version of that sentence:

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses; commas are useful—indeed essential—to clear, effective writing: another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

(Much easier to read, isn’t it?)

Want to learn more? The next article explores comma confusion and ways to avoid it. Check it out by clicking the link below. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Commas Separate Things

Before examining the final comma function, let’s review the running list of essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set things off from the main line of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

I saved the most essential comma function for last. Here it is, in all of its grand complexity:

Commas separate things.

In previous articles, we have explored how commas separate modifying elements (words, phrases, and clauses) from the main line of a sentence. In a very general sense, when I say, “Commas separate things,” I could mean that such separations include the divisions between those modifying elements. With functions 1 and 3 in mind, I could mean that commas separate things (like modifying elements) by representing slight pauses and drops in pitch. In this general sense, the notion that “commas separate things” serves as the all-encompassing comma function.

In this article, though, I intend this rule in a very specific sense. With that in mind, I will modify the rule a bit:

Commas separate items to show that they are to be considered as individual things.

The most frequent expression of this comma function is the separation of items within lists.

Commas Separate Items in Lists

This function applies when we use commas to separate items in a list (also called “items in a series”). Consider the example below:

The series on apostrophes will explore possessives, contractions, and s-ending nouns.

Notice the commas in the sentence above. They act as visual guides to the reader, to express the notion that the three items are separate and distinct from one another but that they are still connected in the sense that they are all explored in the series on apostrophes. (Paradoxically, the comma combines things, even as it divides them.) If the sentence is spoken, those commas become pauses that allow the listener to hear the separations.

But are these commas necessary? After all, the reader could get by without the aid of those commas in determining that the items are separate. Here is the sentence, without the commas:

The series on apostrophes explores possessives contractions and s-ending nouns.

Even if we can perceive these separations without the help of dividing commas (and most readers can), this second sentence requires more thinking on the part of the reader—but it’s not the kind of thinking we want readers to do. It makes the reader do a double-take. Sure, the reader can get by. However, getting by is most assuredly not what we want for our readers. We want to serve our readers with prose that guides them smoothly and seamlessly through our ideas and assertions. If readers do not feel well served, they will turn away from our writing and find something better to read. And why shouldn’t they? (Well, that’s the last thing we want, so we’d better use those commas!)

Although I discuss them here as an element that writers use to serve readers, such dividing commas are not merely a matter of preference. The use of dividing commas is a set-in-stone writing practice, but one that exists for good reason: clear communication.

In some cases, these separating commas are absolutely necessary to the meaning of sentences. In such situations, the reader cannot even manage get by in understanding the prose’s essential message. For example, consider this sentence:

I enjoy writing music and poetry.

What am I saying here? Am I saying that I enjoy three acts (writing, music, and poetry), or that I enjoy two acts (writing music and [reading] poetry)? There is yet a third possibility: I could be saying that I enjoy writing both music and poetry.

Which of these three messages do I intend? Without the aid of commas, there is no way to know for sure. With no clarifying context, the reader has no way of knowing for sure what this sentence states. She is left with three possibilities, each of which makes sense in its own way. As she continues to read, she can only ponder which possibility she is reading about in later sentences and paragraphs. (Think about that: the lack of commas causes harm not only in the example sentence, but also in the sentences and paragraphs that follow.) If she’s lucky, the context will let her know the situation–but, chances are, the frustrated reader will be left in the dark, if only for a time. What reader wants that? You guessed it–no reader! With that point in mind, it’s our job as writers to get that sentence right the first time.

Should we put the comma before and in lists?

You may have noticed that I include the comma before and in a list of three or more items. For example, look at the sentence below, and notice that I place the final comma before and. I have put the comma in red font for your convenience:

The Three Cs of good writing are consciousness, caring, and consideration.

This particular comma placement goes by several names, the most prominent terms being “the Oxford comma” and “the serial comma.” Some writers argue that we should include that pre-and comma in lists, while others think it should not appear there. I explore this matter in an upcoming article, “The (Optional?) Oxford Comma.” To skip to that article on the Oxford comma, click here.

Next Up: Other Comma Separations

Commas serve even more functions as separators. We will explore some of these functions in the next article.

Here’s the link:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).