The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.
– John Stuart Mill
Most forms of English instruction emphasise rules and memorisation; however, I recommend a more instinctual method of mastery. Rather than mapping out sentences or memorising confusing and often inconsistent rules, you can improve your communication skills by simply tapping into the logic of rhythm and structure.
Let’s take a look at five ways you can start tuning your ear:
1. Think of commas as pauses in speech.
Despite what your English teacher may have drilled into your head from an early age, you don’t always need a comma after “and” or “but.” The old rule states that if each part of the sentence—the parts before and after the “and,” “but,” “while,” “or,” etc.—can stand as sentences on their own (“independent clauses”), then you need a comma. But this isn’t true. Commas exist for clarity—nothing more. If you do need a comma, you should be able to tell. Just use your ears.
Inserting a comma into a sentence is like pausing between ideas while speaking. You wouldn’t pause unless you needed to. It’s the same way with grammar. Don’t add a comma unless you really need it.
Consider the difference in rhythm between the following two sentences:
I like fish but anchovies aren’t my favorite.
I like fish, but anchovies can be overpowering.
If you were speaking you’d probably say the first sentence a half-beat faster than the second sentence because we hear the “I like this but not that” structure so often that our brains treat it as a single thought. You’d probably say the second sentence a half-beat slower because you’re expressing a slightly more complex, two-part thought—one that delivers more information—by explaining why you don’t like something. So a comma is needed in the second example, but not the first. And therein lies the purpose of punctuation: to help us communicate complex thoughts in writing.
2. Use semi-colons to give your reader a mental break.
Technically, semi-colons are used to join two independent clauses, to separate main clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb, or to separate items in list that already uses commas. But whose eyes don’t glaze over as soon as they read the term “independent clause”? Let’s try a different tack.
Consider the sentence below:
- Some people write with a word processor; others write with a pen or pencil.
You could just separate the two parts of the sentence with a period:
- Some people write with a word processor. Others write with a pen or pencil.
But every time a sentence ends, your reader has to expend a small amount of mental effort processing its closure and gearing up for the start of the next sentence. Semi-colons provide the pause between thoughts that a period does without forcing the reader to slow down. However, unlike periods, semi-colons must separate closely related thoughts. In the above example, the second part of the sentence answers the first: As soon as you read, “Some people…” you already suspect there are “others” involved too.
So when is a semi-colon not appropriate? Let’s examine a series of thoughts and see if we can identify when a semi-colon should and shouldn’t be used. How would you string the following thoughts together, using only semi-colons and periods?
Some people write with a word processor
An example of a word processor is Microsoft Word
I use Microsoft Word all the time
It helps me keep track of my edits
I highly recommend Microsoft Word
Option 1: connect the first and second thoughts with a semi-colon
- Some people write with a word processor; an example of a word processor is Microsoft Word.
It might seem like these two thoughts are related closely enough to warrant a semi-colon, but it doesn’t work, because the second half is not dependent on the first. It adds information in a self-contained way and therefore stands best as a separate sentence: Some people write with a word processor. An example of a word processor is Microsoft Word.
Option 2: connect the second and third thoughts with a semi-colon
- An example of a word processor is Microsoft Word; I use Microsoft Word all the time.
The semi-colon doesn’t work here because the frequency of usage is a separate point and has been given its own introduction. Again, they work best as separate sentences.
Option 3: connect the third and fourth thoughts with a semi-colon
- I use Microsoft Word all the time; it helps me keep track of my edits.
Here, the semi-colon works because "it helps me keep track of my edits" is an elaboration on "I use Microsoft Word all the time". The second thought is not just related to but dependent upon the first. It’s almost as though the semi-colon represents an unwritten “since” or “because.”
Option 4: connect the fourth and final thoughts with a semi-colon
- It helps me keep track of my edits; I highly recommend Microsoft Word.
Can you see how this one doesn’t quite work? We already know what “It” refers to because we’ve read the previous sentences, but a clear sentence should be self-containing. If the two parts were switched, it could work:
- I highly recommend Microsoft Word; it helps me keep track of my edits.
As is, it’s an awkward placement for a semi-colon.
So Option 3 is the best place for the semi-colon, with the overall paragraph reading:
Some people write with a word processor. An example of a word processor is Microsoft Word. I use Microsoft Word all the time; it helps me keep track of my edits. I highly recommend Microsoft Word.
3. Keep past-within-the-past scenarios loose but contained.
This one is simple to listen for as well. If you’ve already started writing in the past tense, and you’re mentioning something that happened further in the past, use “had.” Here are a few examples:
I was walking down the street on a Sunday. It was the same street I had walked down the previous Sunday.
She looked at me and smiled. It reminded me of the first time I had ever seen her smile.
Now, what tends to happen—and make writers nervous—is when the page becomes littered or weighed down with too many “had”s. See below:
- I was waiting for Jim to pick me up from work. He’d picked me up from work before. It had been a Friday during rush hour. He had been thirty minutes late. I had been annoyed. “I should have called a cab,” I’d snarled.
Solution? Once you’ve entered the world of past-within-the-past, you can let loose a little bit, as long as you begin and end the flashback with “had.” The following version works grammatically, sounds lighter, and even pulls the reader into the flashback more successfully:
- I was waiting for Jim to pick me up from work. He’d picked me up from work before. It was a Friday during rush hour. He was thirty minutes late. I was annoyed. “I should have called a cab,” I’d snarled.
Your reader should never be confused about what happened when.
4. Listen for dashes.
Dashes are fantastically useful but severely underused punctuation marks. Take a look at some examples below:
What time did we get home last night—nine, ten?
Here’s a thought—why don’t you make me a sandwich?
We couldn’t stop laughing—it was so funny.
You can really use them however you want. That’s the beauty of them. Whenever you need to pause for breath, a dash will likely do the job. So listen to the rhythm of your sentences and start using them more often—they’re great!
5. Test “me” versus “I” by eliminating the other person.
Most of us are aware that “Sally and I…” is grammatically correct while “Sally and me…” is not. BUT this is only true at the beginning of a sentence. Here’s what I mean:
Correct: Sally and I bought a cat.
Incorrect: Sally and me bought a cat. / Me and Sally bought a cat.
Correct: The cat belongs to Sally and me.
Incorrect: The cat belongs to Sally and I.
The reason is really, really simple and something you can easily listen for: The sentence should still be grammatical if you eliminate the other person—in this case, Sally.
Correct: I bought a cat.
Incorrect: Me bought a cat.
Correct: The cat belongs to me.
Incorrect: The cat belongs to I.
That’s it! The rule works in pretty much every situation. Just keep your ears open.
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