The Colon: The Equal Sign of Writing

In the introduction to “Punctuation Toolbox,” I discussed the colon to highlight the necessity of developing a varied and versatile punctuation toolbox.

But what exactly is a colon? (And, no, I don’t mean the colon that helps you digest food!) What does it look like? What is its purpose? This article will answer these questions—and a few others. (And here’s more good news: forty-year-old men don’t have to have these [punctuational] colons examined and cleaned out. Just remember that if you think that punctuation is a pain in the . . . well, you know. . . .)

First things first—here’s what a colon looks like:

: colon (one dot directly over another dot)

But what does a colon do? The easiest way to understand the colon’s function is to think of it as the equal sign of writing. Think about how the equal sign sits between two mathematical expressions that are the same (even if they are written differently). For example, when looking at the mathematical expressions below, consider how what is on one side of the equal sign is actually the same number as what is on the other side—even if the two are written differently. Look:

10 = 10

5 + 5 = 10

10 = 5 + 5

10 = 7 + 3

15 = 3 x 5

2 (5 + 2) = 14

We can even list a bunch of numbers on one side, and sum them up with the “answer” on the other side:

2 + 1 + 3 + 4 = 10

Or we can reverse it, with the sum first and the added parts second:

10 = 2 + 1 + 3 + 4

In other words, “2 + 1 + 3 + 4” is just another way of saying “10.”

“Come on, Chris,” you might be saying, “This isn’t The Mathematician’s Toolbox. Why are you talking about all these numbers?”

I’ll explain. The colon is the equal sign of writing. They even look similar:

: colon (one dot over another dot)

= equal sign (one line over another line)

So how is the colon like the equal sign in terms of function? Consider the sentence below. Notice the parts of the sentence combined by the colon; look at what is to the left of the colon and what is to the right of the colon:

Today I bought ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad: mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and—last, but not least—broccoli.

In other words, I am saying the same thing on either side of the colon, just in two different ways:

Ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad = mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and broccoli.

 The item to the left of the colon is the sum—the whole item, not broken down into its parts: “ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad.”

The items to the right of the colon simply compose the breakdown of the thing to the right. That list is just an itemized way of saying “ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad.”

In other words, this . . .

Ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad: mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and broccoli

. . . works just like this . . .

10 = 2 + 1 + 3 + 4

After all, “2 + 2 + 3 + 4” is just a more itemized way of saying “10.”

Do you see it? Like the equal sign, the colon sits between two expressions that state the same concept but in different ways.

The Colon Introduces

Most writing experts will (rightly) say this about the colon: “The colon is an element for introducing the part that follows.” In their brilliant and entertaining punctuation guide, Comma Sense, Richard Lederer and John Shore cleverly call the colon the Ed Sullivan of punctuation, since—like Mr. Sullivan—the colon’s job is to introduce others. That analogy has stayed with me, even as I developed my own ways of teaching colon placement to students.

Here’s how Lederer and Shore put it:

The colon, after all, really doesn’t do much beyond serve as an introducer. And I remember the time on the show when Jack Benny asked Ed what exactly Ed did on the show—and Ed answered with a simple, “I introduce the acts.”

For purposes of this discussion of the colon, I might define the colon this way:

The colon introduces other elements of writing by emphasizing the essential equality of the two items it combines. It introduces by sitting between two different ways of saying the same thing.

So, whether it is introducing a list or simply restating an idea “in other words,” the colon always acts as a type of equal sign between the parts it combines. Take a look at these sample sentences to see how the colon works as both an introducing element and an “equal sign”:

There is only one activity that I enjoy as much as writing: teaching others how to write.

(one activity I enjoy as much as writing = teaching writing to others)

Bob got himself into deep shit yesterday: he was pulled over for speeding—and his license had expired!

(Bob got himself into deep shit yesterday = he was pulled over for speedingand his license had expired)

I am developing essay-commentary macros with one of my valued colleagues: Professor Michael O’Connor.

(one of my valued colleagues = Professor Michael O’Connor)

Christine enjoys a range of activities: traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son.

(a range of activities = traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son)

The colon can also start with the list to introduce the summary description of the list, like this:

Traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son: these are a few of Christine’s favorite things. (Can’t you just hear John Coltrane playing in the background?)

Do you see how that works? Now you understand the colon: the equal sign of writing.

Next Up: The Semicolon

Well, that’s it for the colon. The next article will discuss the basic use of the semicolon, and from there, other articles will discuss further semicolon details. Want to learn more? Click the link below:

Works Cited

Lederer, Richard and John Shore. Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman 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).

Punctuation Toolbox, Introduction: Why Writers Need More Than Periods and Commas

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points. With a bit more consideration, they may think of some mid-sentence punctuation like the comma or the semicolon.

If your punctuation toolbox stops there—with periods, commas, and question marks—then I expect that you often struggle to put what you want to say in writing. Consider the first sentence of this article. You may have noticed that I used a colon (which looks like a dot over another dot) to introduce that list of the most commonly known punctuation techniques:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

But what if I did not know this function of the colon? How would I introduce my list?

Well, I might make the most common substitution of using a comma in place of a colon. After all, commas can be used to introduce certain elements in writing, like quotations. If I had used a comma, the sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Ugh. As you may have noticed, the problem with using a comma to introduce this list is that the term “end punctuation” appears to be the first item in the list when “end punctuation” should sum up all of the items that follow. That didn’t work.

Other writers may simply choose to put nothing there. Here is the sentence that this let-it-be approach yields:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the issue here? Now, that first item appears to be something known as “end punctuation periods.” This let-it-be approach didn’t work any better than the comma approach.

Others might try using a semicolon:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation; periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

This is the best solution so far, since it creates a clear-cut break between the category, “end punctuation,” and the list of examples that follows. The problem, though, is that introducing lists is not really a function of the semicolon, and this slight misuse confuses readers. Aside from one specific exception, the semicolon is used exclusively to combine two complete sentences. In other words, you might think of the semicolon as being able to replace a period–but with one stylistic difference: whereas the period creates a break and a disconnection between the two sentences, the semicolon creates flow and connection between the two sentences. And the phrase “between the two sentences” is the key; the semicolon would not be used to separate a mere list of words from a complete sentence.

Well, if a semicolon doesn’t work, then how about a period? Let’s try it:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation. Periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the problem now? Since the period brings the sentence to a full stop, the attempt backfires by leaving us with a sentence fragment error: a non-sentence written as if it is a sentence. While the first sentence is fine, the second “sentence” is not, in fact, a sentence. In other words, the list “periods, question marks, and exclamation points” is not a sentence, but the writer has set that list off as its own standalone sentence. This non-sentence-written-as-a-sentence deceives and confuses the poor reader.

Come on, dear writer: use a colon already! Here, once again, is our original sentence with the colon. Notice how clear-cut the message is:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

With the colon introducing the list, the commas serve their function of separating the items, so we know that the two-word term question marks is not two separate items—question and marks—but one item: question marks. The colon is not mistaken for combining two sentences (the problem with the semicolon), nor is it mistaken as part of the list (the issue with the comma). Simply put, the colon is the right tool for the job.

But it’s not the only tool for the job, although up to this point I have misled you to think so.

I could also replace the colon with a dash, if I intend a bit more spontaneity—a bit more ah-ha!—in introducing the list:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation—periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

My rule of thumb for using dashes: think of a dash as a replacement for colons and some commas, used when the writer wants a tone of spontaneity and suddenness in the punctuation. Think of a dash as a sudden colon or a spontaneous comma. It does not merely walk readers gently into the next part of the writing. It throws them into it! (You can read more about replacing commas with dashes by clicking here.)

If I want to be extremely clear, I might employ yet one more technique. This technique does not replace the colon, but it helps keep the items distinct and separate:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation: (1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

As you can see in this example, one use of parentheses is to set off numbers in a mid-sentence list. Notice that I used this technique after stating the total number of items in the list. (Look again: I told the reader beforehand that there would be three items in the list.) The numbering drives that point home, and it assists the commas in separating the three items further. It also acts as an at-a-glance visual aid for the reader, should she feel the need to reference the list later.

And, yes, I could also use this parenthetical item numbering with the dash introduction:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—(1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

Both examples are crystal-clear, aren’t they? But what if I used the numbers without setting them off in parentheses? The sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—1 periods, 2 question marks, and 3 exclamation points.

Yuck! That looks horrible. It looks horrible because we are conditioned to see numbers as pluralizing or quantifying the nouns they precede. In other words, when the reader sees the phrase “2 question marks,” she thinks that I am talking about two question marks, not “item number two: question marks.” See the difference? Notice how, with the parentheses separating the numbers from the language of the sentence, their role as numbering labels is clear.

Behold, dear reader, the power of advanced punctuation! The art of writing, first and foremost, involves writing exactly what you mean to say. A big part of developing that skill is in the words and phrases you use, but of equal importance are the absences between the words—the pauses, the lurches, the hesitations, the shifts, and the stops. Accomplishing these distinct effects is the number-one reason for building a diverse punctuation toolbox. Commas and periods are just the beginning.

Do you want to learn more about advanced punctuation? Read on!

Stay tuned for articles on advanced punctuation. In this series, entitled “Punctuation Toolbox,” I will commit articles to punctuation techniques for hyphens, dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheses, and more. I will post links to each article here, at the end of this introductory article.

Note: As this list grows with each article added to this series, you may notice that I will not include articles on the apostrophe. That’s because I’m going to commit two series to the apostrophe: “All You Need to Know about Apostrophes” and “Apostrophe Mania: All You Want to Know about Apostrophes.” Stay tuned for those series as well.

Next Up: More on the Colon!

In this article, I used the example of the colon to introduce the necessity of a developed punctuation toolbox. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what the colon does: it introduces! To learn more about the colon and its functions in writing, see the next article by clicking the link below:

Here are other punctuation techniques covered in “Punctuation Toolbox”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts 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).

All about Commas, Conclusion: Commas Are Essential to Writing

In closing this exploration of the comma, here is a fun example that drives home the importance of mastering this frequent yet often misunderstood writing tool. The example is slightly modified from an example that Lynne Truss shares in her punctuation handbook, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Consider the following sentence:

A woman without her man is nothing.

Not a good statement to make, is it? (When I present this sentence to a group of students, I become the target of many an angry glare from female students.)

Let’s improve this sentence by adding some commas:

A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Two commas—and nothing more—have drastically altered the meaning of this sentence. In fact, this second sentence expresses the very opposite message from that of the first.

Commas matter. Far too often, people think of commas as cute separating squiggles—useful to be sure, but hardly necessary. Transformed completely by the presence of two commas, the sentence above showcases the comma’s importance.

Granted, commas may not always make as drastic a change as the one seen in the example above, but they often do make for some kind of difference in meaning. And even if they do not change a sentence’s meaning, commas do tell our audience how to read our prose. Commas tell readers where to pause and where to lower intonation. Commas, without taking up any more than a single space of text, identify clauses, phrases, and words that act as modifying asides within larger sentences. Commas play much the same role that rests play in music and that negative space plays in visual art. To understand and apply the comma is to manipulate absence as well as presence in the art of writing; it gives you control not only over what is said, but also over what is not said.

With these points in mind, mastering this writing essential is worth your best effort.

Next up: Advanced Punctuation

As we have seen, the comma is an essential tool for expressing intonation and rhythm in writing. However, it isn’t our only punctuation tool. For example,  what if we want to show a long, drawn out hesitation? Or what if we want a pause between two complete sentences, but we do not want that pause to be a period? In these cases, we need to use punctuation techniques other than the comma.

The next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Punctuation Toolbox,” discusses such techniques. Stay tuned!

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts 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).

Stylistic Commas: To Comma or Not to Comma?

Too often, people think of commas purely in terms of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, grammatical and ungrammatical. Sometimes, though, comma placement is a matter of choice. In such cases, the decision to use a comma depends on the writer’s intention. Maybe she wants to emphasize a word by creating pauses, both before and after the word. Maybe she wants to show that some phrase or word is nonessential to the main point of the sentence. Such comma placements may not be grammatically necessary, but they serve the purpose of style.

For example, consider the following sentence. Here are two ways I can write it. Note that both ways are grammatically correct but stylistically distinct:

Comma placement sometimes comes down to a matter of choice.

Comma placement, sometimes, comes down to a matter of choice.

In the first sentence, I do not place any extra emphasis on the adverb sometimes. However, the second sentence emphasizes the word—showcases it—so that the reader is left with the impression that the adverb sometimes is of central importance to the sentence’s message. It stresses the point that comma placement is a matter of choice, but only in some cases. Logically enough, I call such commas “stylistic commas.” You might also call them “optional commas” or even “optional stylistic commas.” Think of it in whatever terms work best for you.

How do we know where to use stylistic commas? My method is to think about where I want emphatic pauses, and then to apply the comma rule of thumb. Do you remember that rule from our previous comma discussions? Just to be sure, here is the full version of the comma rule of thumb with exceptions included:

Comma Rule of Thumb: Wherever you intend a slight pause, usually for emphasis, use a comma. The only exception is if you are connecting two sentences, in which case you need a semicolon to show the pause.

With the comma rule of thumb in mind, think about the following sentences. Consider where I want readers to pause and how I show those pauses with commas. Also, consider why I want readers to pause in those places.

The community college, in my view, is a valuable resource for non-traditional adult learners.

Commas are simple, once we embrace their complexity.

I enjoy writing, and teaching others how to write.

Notice how, in that third sentence, I placed a comma before the coordinating conjunction and, although I did not use and to combine two independent clauses. You may recall my previous article, where I stated that the purpose of the comma preceding and is to show that and combines two complete sentences. Although the statement “I enjoy writing” is a complete sentence, the phrase “teaching others how to write” is hardly a complete sentence. Is this comma placement an error, then? Did I misuse the comma?

No. Though it appears to disobey established rules, I used that comma correctly. I placed that comma to create a stylistic pause before and—not to support it as a coordinating conjunction. This comma does not exist for any grammatical purpose. It serves the effect of creating a stylistic pause between two different actions: (1) writing and (2) teaching writing to others. I want my reader to see that I recognize writing and teaching writing to others as two distinctly different practices. That comma (and the pause it represents) emphasizes that distinction. The content of my writing (the idea that there is a separation between writing and teaching writing) is reflected by a separation in the writing that expresses that notion. When placing stylistic commas, intention and purpose matter.

Still, situations like this cause a great deal of comma confusion. Armed with the (normally useful) rule that “commas precede coordinating conjunctions to show that they combine two complete sentences,” novice writers encounter a sentence like the third example above, and they are suddenly lost. I can hear them now: “I thought the comma rules said I should place commas before coordinating conjunctions only to show that two sentences are being combined. This is not a case where two sentences are being combined, yet there it is: a comma before and. What gives?”

What must give is the notion that commas are always dictated by set-in-stone, all-encompassing rules. One additional rule accompanies every comma rule I have given you up to this point: use commas wherever you think emphatic pauses should occur to highlight some word, phrase, or clause. Reading your sentence aloud—the way you want it to sound—and then placing commas where you hear pauses is a good start. The comma rule of thumb will not lead you astray.

Conclusion: To Comma or Not to Comma?

If you feel that your writing too often reads like an uninterrupted clinical stream of data, consider some consciously placed stylistic commas. On the other hand, if you feel that commas are a bit excessive in your writing or that you are writing in a monotone, play with dashes, parentheses, and colons. Each has its own unique place in the writer’s toolbox. (Did you miss my articles on dashes and parentheses? Click here to learn more.)

Stay tuned for the conclusion to “All about Commas,” where I will share an interesting example of how commas can change the meanings of sentences. With that conclusion, we will move on to discuss advanced punctuation techniques like the colon (:), the semicolon (;), the ellipsis (. . .), and a few others.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts 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 Odds & Ends: Commas Support Conjunctions That Combine Two Sentences

Here’s a simple comma function: a comma should come before a coordinating conjunction whenever the coordinating conjunction combines two complete sentences.

At this point, you might be saying, “Whoa there, partner! What are coordinating conjunctions again?”

Coordinating conjunctions, as their name implies, coordinate two sentences or items (coordinating), even as they conjoin them (conjunction). They are often called conjunctions, for short. There are only seven coordinating conjunctions. The mnemonic FANBOYS will help you remember them:

For

And

Nor

But

Or

Yet

So

Conjunctions can combine all kinds of things. They can combine words, phrases, or even full sentences. However, when we use a coordinating conjunction to combine two full sentences, we should put a comma before that conjunction to show that it is combining two large and complete parts. The comma also creates a pause and a drop in pitch just before the conjunction to emphasize the point that the conjunction is leading into another complete sentence. (Remember those two comma functions? If not, check ’em out! Here are links: commas create pauses and commas create drops in pitch.)

Here is an example of how a comma precedes a coordinating conjunction:

Last year, Bob taught three literature courses, and he served on the department’s hiring committee.

Notice that I am using and to combine two complete, stand-alone sentences:

1. Bob taught three literature courses

2. He served on the department’s hiring committee.

The comma before and acts as a separating agent, since it adds additional force to the conjunction. It says to the reader, “I am combining two big things here—sentences that could stand alone. Beware, reader: this single sentence involves not one, but two complete (but related) messages.” Considering the point that commas represent pauses in our writing, that comma also says, “Pause before this and to recognize that you are about to read another complete, stand-alone idea.”  All of that—from a comma!

Here is a sentence that expresses the same essential idea as the sentence above. Notice, though, that it does not combine two full sentences; instead, it uses a compound verb:

Bob taught three literature courses and served on the department’s hiring committee.

There is no comma before and—and there doesn’t need to be. That is because and is not combining two complete sentences. It combines two verb phrases. Look:

Bob . . .

1. taught three literature courses (verb phrase—not a sentence)

and

2. served on the department’s hiring committee (verb phrase—not a sentence)

The presence of a comma (or lack thereof) in the sentences above acts as a visual cue so that readers know what is to come in the sentence. This is yet another function that commas serve in our writing.

Next Up: Can Comma Placement Be a Matter of Choice?

These comma articles have explored many applications of the comma, and many of these applications—like the pre-conjunction comma discussed in this article—are indeed matters of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate.

But are there cases in which comma placement is a matter of choice? For example, can we place a comma before a coordinating conjunction even if the “rule” discussed in this article says otherwise? Can we place some commas simply because we want to?

Sure we can! Read the next article to learn more. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Christopher AltmanAmericans. 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).

Comma Odds & Ends: Should I Place Commas Between Adjectives?

Here’s a good question about commas:

“When I have multiple adjectives before a noun, should I place commas between those adjectives?”

I could have my own fleet of yachts if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this question (well, maybe not yachts—but definitely a few bass boats).

The answer: it depends! (Don’t you just love hearing that answer?)

What, though, does this decision depend on? To answer this question, here’s a quick rule of thumb for commas and adjectives:

Comma-between-Adjectives Rule of Thumb: If two adjectives precede the noun they modify, place commas between them if you would replace the comma with the word and. If and would not work there, since the adjectives seem inseparable, do not place a comma.

Confusing? An example will serve best:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Notice that there is a comma between painful and frigid, but not between frigid and winter. Why?

Remember the rule of thumb: if and can replace the comma, then the comma is correct. Let’s apply the rule to the sentence above:

The painful and frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (correct)

That works, doesn’t it? Now, just to be sure, let’s try adding and where we did not use a comma:

The painful and frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

It does not work even if we omit the adjective painful:

The frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

Ugh. That didn’t work. We’d best leave that second comma out.

Even though I have shared a working rule of thumb for commas separating adjectives, my inquisitive (and demanding) readers may still want an explanation of why commas sometimes fall between adjectives and why in other cases they do not. The answer is simple, but I think many teachers do not explain it well, since they too often use English grammar jargon in their explanations. Such so-called explanations only serve to accomplish the one thing that explanations should not do—fail to explain.

With that in mind, here is a working explanation for inquisitive minds. Let’s return to our example sentence:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Now, think about the adjectives painful and frigid. They each apply separately to the noun. I could remove one of these adjectives, and the sentence would still make sense:

The painful winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (frigid omitted)

The frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (painful omitted)

Those still make perfect sense; however, if I remove winter, the sentence would not make nearly as much sense:

The painful, frigid air bit into Bob’s bones. (winter omitted)

So, the notion of winter is an integral part of the noun air. Sure, painful and frigid allow the reader to reason that the air must be winter air, but I prefer the sentence that makes this point explicit.

How then is winter different from painful and frigid in the sentence above? Remember that winter is inseparable from the noun air, such that it actually becomes part of the noun. (In some cases, such adjectives become one with their nouns completely, as seen in the nouns bighead and freeway.)

Because winter becomes part of a larger noun, the noun is effectively made up of both an adjective (winter) and a noun (air). In other words, we are not talking about a thing known simply as air. We are talking about a thing called winter air. And that noun, winter air, is modified by two separate adjectives: painful and frigid. We can see it better if we restructure the sentence this way:

The winter air that bit into Bob’s bones was both painful and frigid.

Notice that in both versions of the sentence the adjectives painful and frigid modify, not merely the word air, but the adjective-noun combination winter air. If we placed a comma between winter and air, the adjective winter would be grouped with the adjectives that define it, and not with the noun.

Here is a third example. Think about the difference between those adjectives that are divided by commas and the one that is not:

Josie lives in a stylish, spacious loft apartment.

Think about it with the sentence reorganized:

Josie lives in a loft apartment that is stylish and spacious. (correct)

But not:

Josie lives in an apartment that is stylish, spacious, and loft. (incorrect)

The following diagram shows how these adjectives function in the two sentences above. Arrows represent how one word modifies another word–to show us which word(s) receive(s) description. Notice how the comma placement changes the function of the third adjective:

Comma-Adjective-Correct-and-Incorrect1-300x187See how that works? In the top diagram, the adjectives stylish and spacious modify loft apartment. In the bottom diagram, the adjectives (and so-called adjectives) stylish, spacious, and loft modify the apartment. Of course, loft is not an adjective, at least in the sense that it appears in that second diagram. That’s why it should not be treated like the other two adjectives. It functions as part of the noun, and by virtue of belonging to the noun, it receives the description of the other two adjectives.

Here is one more example:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing ice cubes.

This sentence says:

The ice cubes were numbing and refreshing.

It does not say:

The cubes were numbing, refreshing, and ice.

Also, if ice should be one of the comma-separated adjectives, we can remove it and the sentence will still make sense. Let’s try it:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing cubes.

If we remove all three comma-separated adjectives, we are left with this:

Jack chewed on some cubes.

Personally, I enjoy chewing on ice cubes, but not on cubes in general. Rubik’s Cubes are fun to solve (or to try to solve), but I prefer not to chew on them. (However, many dogs and toddlers would passionately disagree with me on this matter.) So, unless we want our readers to think Jack is a canine (or that he is incredibly eccentric), we should specify that these things he is chewing on are not merely cubes, but that they are ice cubes. In this sentence, the idea of a cube should not be separated from the adjective ice. By placing a comma between ice and the other two adjectives, the writer would erroneously group ice with that series of comma-combined adjectives, and not with the noun, cube. That would be a bad move, unless the writer was discussing a dog named Jack chewing on cubes that are defined by the adjective ice.

(But really–who names their dog Jack? Whatever happened to Spot or Fido? And what on earth does it mean for the cubes to be ice? Maybe it will catch on as a new slang word: “Yeah, I’m tellin’ ya: these cubes are ice, man. You gotta try some 0′ these if you wanna be ice.”)

To recap, here are our rules for commas and adjectives:

1. If and can go between two adjectives without disrupting the meaning of a sentence, you can place a comma there (in place of and).

2. If the adjective is an integral part of the noun, and if removing it would cause the noun not to make sense alone, then you should not separate it from another adjective with a comma. It should be considered part of the noun, which means that the adjective—along with the noun—is modified by the other adjectives.

3. If the adjective describes the noun but is not integral to the noun’s meaning, you should separate that adjective from the other non-integral adjectives with a comma.

Coming up: Commas and Conjunctions

Commas serve many purposes in sentences. One of the most frequent (and useful) comma functions is that commas work along with coordinating conjunctions to combine two sentences into one. To learn more about this useful comma function, 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 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).


Myths We Learned in Grade School English: The Book!

On The Writer’s Toolbox, I had written a series of blog articles on a matter that I called the Myths We Learned in Grade School English. As its title implies, this series of blog articles attempted to introduce, explain, and debunk writing myths that many people are taught as children by well meaning teachers.

For example, the prohibition “Do not use contractions in serious writing” is one such rule that most “serious” writers ignore completely. Consider other writing myths learned in the classrooms of childhood–myths such as “Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions like and or but” or “Never use the first-person pronoun I in serious writing.” Or how about this one: “Never begin a sentence with because“? How do skilled writers manage to violate these rules, while most average writers feel bound by them?

The Myths blog series answered that question as it delved into a number of grade school writing myths. My readers were definitely interested–and they still are. While glancing at the traffic on my WordPress account, I have noticed that many visitors to my (still) humble blog have been reading the Myths articles. Nothing could please me more.

Well, I have good news and bad news for my dear readers. I’ll start with the bad news: I have removed the Myths series from the blog.

The good news is the reason I have removed the Myths blog articles: I am publishing Myths We Learned in Grade School English as a book!

Myths We Learned in Grade School English will be available for purchase through Kona Publishing and Media Group in August, 2013. Although Myths is being marketed as a college composition textbook, it will be available for individual purchase on Kona’s website. If you are interested in purchasing this book now (whether for your own reading or for teaching a course), then feel free to order a copy using the directions posted at the end of this article. In the meantime, I thought my readers might want a small taste of this book, so I have included the book’s introduction and table of contents below. (Go on–check it out!)

I appreciate your support, your feedback, and–most of all–your readership.

–Chris

Myths We Learned in Grade School English: Contents

Introduction

Myth 1: The Myth of the Run-on Sentence—“Don’t write long sentences.”

Myth 2: “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like and or but.Altman

Myth 3: “Do not begin sentences with because.”

Myth 4: “Never use the pronoun you in serious writing.”

Myth 5: “Never Refer to Yourself Using the Pronoun I.”

Myth 6: “Never write sentence fragments.”

Myth 7: “Don’t—um . . . Do not use contractions in formal writing.”

Myth 8: “The Five-Paragraph Essay: Training Wheels for Young Essayists”

“Honorable Mentions”

Conclusion: “The Real Rules Practices of Effective Writing”

Appendix

Further Reading

 

Introduction

Does this sound familiar?—

You sit down to write a cover letter for a job application. Your plan is to write a detailed yet convincing interpretation of your work experience and education. But in a sad twist of irony, your education is the very experience that is halting your progress on this cover letter. You pause at the third sentence, unsure how to proceed. As the cursor sits there blinking at you, all you can hear in your mind is the voice of your fourth-grade English teacher, telling you what never to do when you write:

  • “Do not write long sentences. Those are run-on sentences.”
  • “Never begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions like but or and.”
  • “Never begin sentences with because.”
  • “Do not use the personal pronoun you in serious writing.”
  • Do not use contractions like don’t in your writing.
  • “Never write sentence fragments. You must always write complete sentences.”

You’re paralyzed. Your train of thought has derailed completely, and all you can think about is whether you’re being “grammatically correct” when you write. (And you still feel that you are just as much of an outsider to the Grammatically Correct Club as you were in the fourth grade, staring blankly at the comments scribbled on your essay.)  It’s enough just to worry about one concern—like run-on sentences—but since your fourth-grade teacher demanded that you obey all of these rules, you wonder how on earth you can obey all of them and still manage to say what you want to say in this letter. After all, if you were judged as a fourth grader for making these errors, how much more severely will you be judged as an adult? What will this employer think of you when they see these mistakes? How could you make such mistakes anyway? Who taught you how to write? How can you expect to call yourself a professional with improper, illiterate writing like this? The end of the second sentence still sits there, the cursor sitting in front of it like a wall, taunting you, daring you to write further without embarrassing yourself.

You do manage to move on with the letter, but you move on in defeat. You write only short, choppy, but safe sentences. You think to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction to create transition—in the same way that you would pose a sentence in spoken conversation: naturally. But you kill your natural writing for a sentence that has no transition and flow, one that you hope that the reader will simply grasp as stemming from the previous sentence. You are playing it safe, and instead of really expressing your passion for this position, you end up writing just like you always have: you write a letter that is dull and formulaic—and, even then, you are still afraid you made mistakes you could not detect.

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

Fret no more, dear reader. I write this book to free your writing process of these rules, learned from those who are trained to teach writing to children—not to adults.

You might think, then, that I have written this book to make these rules simple—to teach you easy ways to follow all of these rules. But what if I told you that these so-called rules aren’t really rules at all—that most of them are false rules that no longer apply to our writing as adults? What if I told you that most of these rules that hijack your writing process are false, and that the best step you can take to improve your writing is to drop those rules completely?

At this point you might be thinking, “Are you saying that these rules—taught to me by trained, trusted educators—are lies?”

Not quite. I call these rules myths (and not lies or untruths) because, like myths of old, they contain some truth, although they are not to be considered wholly or absolutely true. Consider the ancient myths of Western culture—for example, the myth of Achilles. Of course we know that Achilles is a fiction: that there was never a man who was invincible with the exception of his heel. That said, we do find some truths within this fiction. Achilles’ story teaches, among other things, that overestimation of oneself leads to loss, and that everyone—no matter how great—has some weakness. This same lesson persists today, in other narratives. Superman’s vulnerability to kryptonite is a modern retelling of Achilles, while Samson losing his strength with the loss of his long hair is a Judeo-Christian telling. Speaking of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the oft-told tale of the Garden of Eden expresses a truth about humans’ desire to seek knowledge, even (or perhaps especially) when it is forbidden. The myth of Icarus communicates the devastating consequences of arrogance and overreaching ambition. While none of these stories is true, they do express truths.

Similarly, the myths we learn about effective writing in grade school English class contain some kernel of truth. However, these myths are too often considered absolutes, and instead of being instructive, they become stumbling blocks to effective writing. Although perfectly acceptable for eight-year-old children, many of the writing practices we learn from the teachers of childhood should change—or perhaps disappear altogether—as we develop, both as writers and as people. To stay in the confines of these pseudo-rules is the equivalent of a thirty-four-year-old man entering the Tour de France on a pink kiddy bike with training wheels and handle tassels (white-and-pink-striped handle tassels, no less!). Like the hindered (and somewhat curious looking) cyclist, you will not go very far in your writing if you continue to practice the conventions of childhood.

Are you interested in knowing the truths to be found in these rules and why so many grade school teachers express these rules as absolutes? Would you like to drop these myths from your writing process so that you can write with a liberated, unfettered mind?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes,” then this book is for you.

Interested in ordering Myths We Learned in Grade School English?

Here’s what to do:

1. Send an e-mail to Kona at this address: orders@konapublishing.com

2. Include the book’s ISBN number: 978-1-935987-44-4

3. Specify the number of copies you are ordering. Multiple purchases (for classes) and individual purchases are both welcomed.

(I will post a link to the book’s page when Kona makes one available. Stay tuned. . . .)

Click below to return to “All about Commas”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. Mr. Altman writes a blog entitled The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox, and he also produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York.

Mr. Altman is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, New York.

The Three Dimensions of Writing

In the previous blog, we considered John Trimble’s definition of effective writing: “Writing is the art of creating desired effects.” When applying that definition to persuasive writing, we have this definition:

Persuasive writing is the art of creating the desired effect of persuading readers.

Or, to shorten the definition . . .

Persuasive writing is the art of persuading readers.

So how exactly does a writer achieve persuasion? What is the anatomy of a persuasive essay? In short, you should think of writing as involving three aspects:

1. The writer (ethos)

2. The writing itself (logos)

3. The reader (pathos)

Every writer—or at least, every writer who wants to be successful—must consider all three of these writing aspects. They are all part of the rhetorical game. The writer wants to give a sense that she is an authority on the topic, or at least that she knows her topic well enough to write with some authority. At the same time, she does not want to come across as stodgy or inaccessible. Some personality (infused with a healthy smidgen of honesty) helps give the reader the sense that the writer is a friendly, sincere soul—but one who still knows her stuff. That’s ethos: the identity of the writer as transmitted through the writing.

What about the writing itself? Is it clearly written? Does the argument make sense? Does the argument ever contradict itself? Is the research cited pertinent to the writer’s arguments or points? That’s logos: the logic, unity, and essential clarity of the writing.

But even if the writer’s points are clear and well argued, who wants to read a dry, clinical list of pertinent data and formalized arguments? Writers win readers over not only by appealing to readers’ intellects, but also by evoking emotional responses. A good writer makes people think, but she also makes them feel. This aspect of style infuses otherwise dull facts and mute statistics with humanity and purpose. Emotional responses come in many forms. Does the writer want to make the reader laugh? Does she want readers to cry? Does she want her readers to be angry about the issue she’s discussing? Is she writing to shock her readers? Maybe she wants a bit of all four responses. That’s pathos: the emotional impact that the writing has on the reader.

The figure below shows these three essential aspects of writing. Consider the writing practices for achieving each effect. Also, while considering the image below, consider how there is an area where all three effects overlap. That area of complete overlap represents writing that balances logic (logos), character (ethos), and emotion (pathos). As a rule, that center of balance is where we want to be, although some writing situations call for us to emphasize some aspects over others. (For example, a lab report might be more logos-driven, while a personal response paper will emphasize a bit more ethos and pathos.)

The Three Dimensions of Writing: Ethos, Logos, and Pathos

The goal is to balance all three of these aspects in your writing. Experienced writers often achieve all three simultaneously. “Simultaneously? How is that done?” you might ask.

I’ll show you. Here’s an example from Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. These passages are drawn from the introduction to Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Ehrman writes,

When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human infant . . .

What moved me most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion, spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us. “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said. “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . .

“You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered.

No matter our position on the existence of god, the sheer power of Ehrman’s prose is undeniable. It possesses a moving level of sincere frustration (ethos), and Ehrman presents some shocking numbers (logos) to give reasons for his frustration–and perhaps to transmit some of that frustration to the reader (pathos). In short, this writing represents a perfect fusion of all three writing aspects.

Four Essentials for Effective Writing

Here are John Trimble’s four essentials for winning readers. Consider how Ehrman’s writing in the passage above exhibits all four of these essentials:

1. Have something to say that’s worth their attention.

Ehrman’s discussion presents a topic that is relevant, for religious and non-religious readers alike: considering human suffering in light of popular religious beliefs.

2. Be sold on its validity and importance yourself so you can pitch it with conviction.

Can you feel Ehrman’s conviction in the writing–writing that is based on his life experience?

3. Furnish strong arguments that are well supported with concrete proof.

Consider the specific numbers that Ehrman presents. Notice that he presents a range of examples by discussing different forms of human suffering.

4. Use confident language—vigorous verbs, strong nouns, and assertive phrasing.

Verbs like affirmrepeated and mutilated are–without a doubt–vigorous verbs. Strong nouns include reflections, darkness, frustration, and misery. We hear assertive phrasing, for example, when Ehrman writes, “Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t.”

These are the elements of any successful writing strategy. Consider how Trimble’s four essentials are building blocks for producing ethos, logos, and pathos in our writing. Those three effects–those three dimensions of writing–create persuasion: the core “desired effect” of persuasive writing.

Next Up: All About Commas

One key to producing the desired effects of writing is having control over the movement and tone of a sentence. Punctuation is how writers do this.

Perhaps the most confusing punctuation technique is also the most frequent: the comma. The next part of The Writer’s Toolbox will help you understand the comma and its applications so that you can add this useful punctuation tool to your writing toolbox.

If you want to see the comma made simple, read on!

Here’s the link:

Works Cited

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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).


The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

In the introduction to The Writer’s Toolbox, I mentioned that writing is like chess. Specifically, I compared writing to chess when considering the mindset of the novice writer versus the mindset of the experienced writer.

Writing is like chess also in the sense that writing involves a strategy—a larger game plan for convincing readers. The strategy of chess aims at the goal of winning (by putting the opponent’s king in checkmate). But what exactly is the strategy of writing? What are you trying to win when you write?

Well, it depends on what you are writing. A persuasive essay, for example, seeks to persuade or convince. An expository essay or a how-to manual seeks to explain or instruct. A story seeks to entertain, often while encouraging some life lesson or point of introspection. The situation determines the goal of the writing.

Still, I have found a pretty good working definition for the goal of all writing. I should note that when I say writing, I mean writing that is intended for some reader, whether an English teacher or the American reading public—or both.

As much as I’d like to take credit for it, this definition is not mine. John R. Trimble, who wrote what I consider the book on writing, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing, shares the following general definition for writing:

“Writing is the art of creating desired effects” within the reader.

I like that definition. It works for any writing, whether it’s a mystery novel (desired effects: suspense and conjectures on “who did it.”), a persuasive essay (desired effect: to convince the reader that the writer’s position is correct, or at least valid), or a romance novel (desired effect: I’d rather not say . . .).

My desired effect for that last parenthetical phrase was to make you laugh. Did it work? My desired effect in this paragraph is to give you the sense that I’m in your head—that I’m conversing with you and responding to the thoughts that come to you as you read my writing. Is that working? (I hope so.) These are smaller desired effects, but they serve the purpose of my larger strategy: to teach as I entertain.

My discussions, for the most part, address the writing form I teach in most composition courses: persuasive writing. As its name implies, the desired effect of persuasive writing is persuasion. Simple enough.

But what do I mean by persuasion? The best case is that my reader—who at first disagreed with my position—enjoys my essay and promptly decides to agree with me. Still, that result is not realistic, no matter how eloquent or convincing the prose. Chances are, people who hold strong worldviews will not change their positions after reading one essay. Still, I hope to convince them that my position is tenable. At the very least, I want my reader to say, “I don’t agree with his position, but he argues it well. And–you know what?–I like him.”

That last part, the notion of liking a writer, is important. In the writing business, we call that concept ethos. When I write, I try to come across as the kind of guy who anyone—even those who disagree with me—would enjoy having a beer with. (That’s one reason I ended that sentence with the preposition, with: traditionally a no-no in formal writing. Think about it: if I had said, “with whom they would enjoy having a beer,” no one would want to actually have a beer with me.)

This level of persuasion is subtle, but powerful. The reader, immediately after finishing the essay, still disagrees completely. But since the arguments were strong, and since the writer came across as sincere, personable, and intelligent, the reader continues to consider, on occasion, the writer’s assertions over the course of the day. In fact, even the following day, the reader continues to recall points made in the essay. As the year goes by, the memory of the argument lends itself to a body of works and life experiences that affects the reader, whether he knows it or not, in moving towards the writer’s position. A few bricks fall out of the foundation upon which the reader has built his position. Persuasion has happened.

So, how do we persuade? Simply put, the writer must aim to win readers over to himself and his ideas, while affecting the readers’ emotions. These components make up the three aspects of writing, which those of us in the composition-rhetoric business call ethos, logos, and pathos. No piece of effective writing can exist without these three aspects.

Want to learn more? Here’s the link:

The Three Dimensions of Writing

Works Cited

Trimble, John R. Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

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).


Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

The Rules Practices of Effective Writing

Consider, for a moment, all of the grammatical and stylistic rules so often taught to children by parents, teachers, and other mentors. Too often, those rules seem disconnected from one another–an arbitrary list of do’s and dont’s for would-be writers to memorize and force upon their prose. For now, we should forget about those rules, or at least forget about them in the sense that they exist for their own sake. They serve a higher purpose: producing effective writing. That said, when those rules do not make for effective writing (and sometimes they don’t), we should bend–and even break–those rules.

With that point in mind, dear reader, I want you to move away from the idea that there are any hard-and-fast rules of writing. The “rules” exist to make the writing effective, and not because of any decree issued by some imagined circle of Grammar Gods. In the upcoming blogs, I will discuss many practices of effective writing, and I prefer to talk about practices, instead of pontificating about rules. At the end of the day, the goal of effective writing is just that–to be effective: to achieve our desired effects for the documents we write. Practices will get us there; rules will not.

Return to the analogy, mentioned in an earlier blog of the writer’s toolbox: a collection of techniques that the writer can call upon to produce effective writing (and also the inspiration behind this blog’s title). A skilled carpenter does not have a set of rules that force him to use a tool the same way for every situation. There is no rule in carpentry that says, “You must always use the back part of the hammer to extract a bent nail from the wood. If you use any other tool besides a hammer for this task, you will fail as a carpenter.”

Nonsense! The carpenter looks at the situation, and he finds the best tool for the job. What if that nail is in a spot where the carpenter cannot fit the hammer and gain leverage? Or what if the head of the nail has broken off? The carpenter then uses another tool, perhaps a strong pair of pliers, combined with some lubricating element, to remove that nail.

Writing is the same. The “rules” are just guidelines–practices. The skilled writer, like the skilled carpenter, works on a case-by-case basis, choosing the right tool for the right job. And the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as the carpenter works with his overall goal in mind (building a sturdy but elegant table, for example),  so too does the writer keep her overall goal in mind: producing an effective document that will move her intended audience towards her perspective.

Writing, then, must begin with goals–and that just happens to be the subject of my next blog. Interested? Check it out:

The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

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).