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Basic Guide to Writing Mechanics

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  • Basic Guide to Writing Mechanics

    On top of being a writer, I am also an editor. As the pedant that I am, I value writing mechanics quite highly (Wayne can attest to this), so I thought I might post a series of guides to some of the basic concepts of grammar, punctuation, and style. For the sake of neatness and simplicity, I ask that discussion take place using the Comment function rather than thread replies, to keep the guide as easy to read as possible.

    Table of Content:

    Introduction: Terminology

    Part One: Grammar Part Two: Punctuation
    Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 08-21-2020, 12:45 PM.

  • #2
    Introduction: Terminology

    First, I must warn you that I’m going to approach this guide as if you know nothing. Some of it is very elementary, and if you’ve had adequate education and remember that education, you may find it boring. Feel free to skip past anything you feel you already know. The most basic concepts, which I expect even those of you whose teachers mostly neglected you to know, I will only address in brief. But if you have any questions about them, you are welcome to ask in the comments and I’ll think no less of you for it. I will, however, think a lot less of those responsible for your primary and secondary English education.

    Grammar contains a lot of terminology that you don’t normally use anywhere else. You have the word classes, such as noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, article, preposition, and conjunction, which you are probably at least vaguely familiar with. I will go over all these later in the guide. I’ll try to go easy on other terminology, but there are a few words that are needed in order to understand grammar in the first place, so here is a brief glossary of some grammar terminology I think you should know, if you don’t already.

    Plural and singular: Some words, like most nouns, verbs, and pronouns, change form according to how many of a thing you’re talking about. Singular means there is only one, plural means there are two or more. Note that some collective nouns, such as team, group, or population are singular, even though a team, group, and population all encompass several individuals. A singular noun or third person pronoun is, while plural nouns and pronouns are.

    Possessives: These are words that indicate possessions, that something belongs to the noun. Like the cat’s pyjamas. In most singular nouns and some plural, the possessive is indicated by apostrophe s (’s), while in plural nouns that end in s, usually only the apostrophe is used. The exception is possessive pronouns, which have their own forms. More on this later.

    Feminine, masculine, neutrum: These terms aren’t used much in English grammar since English nouns aren’t gendered, as opposed to those of most other indo-european languages. However, the Germanic remnants of gendered words exist in the third person pronouns of he, she, and it, which is why I think knowing these words is still useful.

    Conjugation: Some word classes, specifically verbs and adjectives, can be conjugated. This means that the word changes due to some circumstance. In verbs, this is mostly related to the verb’s tense, meaning past, present, or future, and participles relating to these. They also change according to whether the noun or pronoun is singular or plural. Specifically, third person singular has its own form of every verb. The only verb that has a different form in first person singular is to be. I’ll go into all this in more detail in the next chapter. Some adjectives are conjugated comparatively. That is to say that the form of the word changes in comparison to other things. The cat is cute, cuter than the other cat, or the cutest cat there ever was.

    Clause: A clause is a segment of a sentence. Clauses can be independent, which means they make sense on their own, or dependent, meaning they depend on another clause in the sentence and are mostly nonsense if read by themselves. All sentences must have at least one independent clause to be complete.
    Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 07-29-2020, 05:05 PM.


    • #3
      Part One: Grammar

      1. Nouns, Verbs, and Pronouns

      Nouns and verbs are the most basic building blocks of a sentence. In fact, you cannot have a sentence or an independent clause without them. (The exception is if you use a pronoun instead of a noun; more on that later.)

      Put simply, nouns are things. Examples of nouns are cat, tree, human, house, or car. In English, nouns exist in only two states: singular, just the one thing, and plural, two or more of a thing. A cat, the cat, many cats, the cats. A and the are known as articles. A (and an, used if the noun begins with a vowel) is the indefinite article. When I say a cat it can mean just some random cat, out of all the cats in the world. The, on the other hand, is the definite article. It specifies that I’m talking about that specific cat and not one of the millions of other cats on the planet.

      Some nouns are the same in plural and singular, such as sheep or deer. Certain plural nouns retain grammatical elements no longer used in English, changing the vowel sound rather than adding an s at the end. Examples of these are feet, plural of foot, mice, plural of mouse, and geese, plural of goose. Men, plural of man, and women, plural of woman, are also examples of this. There are two nouns that retain an archaic plural ending, and those are children and oxen.

      Names of specific people, things, places, or languages are referred to as proper nouns, meaning they should be capitalised. England, Nike, Spanish, and John are all examples of proper nouns.

      Verbs, on the other hand, are actions. Generally speaking, they are things the nouns do or are affected by. While nouns only have two forms, singular and plural, verbs are conjugated according to tense, that is time, and their form can change according to whether the noun that is doing is singular or plural.

      The tenses we operate with when conjugating verbs are past, present, and future. Additionally, each verb has past and present participles that are used in different ways, but I’ll get into this in more detail later on. The basic form of a verb, which has not been conjugated, is called an infinitive.

      Let’s take the verb to sit. This is the infinitive. Present tense singular is sits, present plural is sit, and past tense is sat, regardless of number. Future tense is always the infinitive with to replaced with will, so will sit.

      1.1 Subjects and Objects

      A clause requires only a noun and a verb in order to be a sentence. The cat sits is an independent clause. It is a statement. The cat, the noun, sits, the verb. The cat is, in this case, the subject of the sentence. It is the thing that does. To sit, the verb, is what the cat is doing. The cat is, in this case, not doing anything to anyone or anything else, it is simply sitting.

      However, the cat scratches the chair is a clause with an object. The object is the noun something is being done to. In this case, the chair is the object because it is being scratched by the subject, the cat.

      1.2 Past and Present Participles

      These verb forms are used in the perfect and continuous forms of the tenses, respectively. To continue with the verb to sit, the present participle is sitting. In this case, the past participle is the same as the regular past tense, sat, so lets pick another verb to illustrate better.

      Let’s use to go. In singular, this verb is conjugated as follows:

      Infinitive: to go
      Present: goes
      Present participle: going
      Past: went
      Past participle: gone

      The present participle, going, is used in both past, present, and future continuous tenses.

      Present continuous: is going
      Past continuous: was going
      Future continuous: will be going

      Meanwhile, the past participle is used in perfect tenses.

      Present perfect: has gone
      Past perfect: had gone
      Future perfect: will have gone

      Then, just to confuse you even more, there are the perfect continuous tenses.

      Present perfect continuous: has been going
      Past perfect continuous: had been going
      Future perfect continuous: will have been going

      That’s a lot of complicated grammar speak for stuff you most likely already intuitively know, but knowing what things are called can be helpful when learning new concepts, such as . . .

      1.3 Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

      Transitive verbs are verbs that affect a direct object, whereas intransitive verbs have no object at all. To sit is an intransitive verb; it’s not something you do to something, it’s just something you do. To go is also intransitive. To scratch, however, is a transitive verb. The thing that is scratching, scratches something. The cat scratches the chair.

      All verbs that affect an object are transitive. Some, if not most, transitive verbs have intransitive counterparts, and in most cases, the intransitive version of the verb is the same as the transitive. To eat can be both transitive and intransitive. The girl eats is a general statement with no object, intransitive, while the girl eats cereal is a sentence with an object, so the verb is transitive.

      To illustrate, I’m going to take two verbs that people use interchangeably a lot of the time, but where one is transitive and another is intransitive. They are to lay and to lie.

      To lie is an intransitive verb. Something you do, but not to something; it's an action without a direct object. You lie down. To lie is conjugated: lie, lies, lying, lay, has/have lain. As you see, the past tense of lie is lay, which is likely where the confusion begins. More on this later.


      He lies on the ground. (Present tense)
      She is lying still. (Present participle)
      They lay there together. (Past tense)
      I have lain here for a long time. (Past participle)

      To lay is a transitive verb. It's something you do to something; an action with a direct object. You lay something down. To lay is conjugated: lay, lays, laying, laid, has/have laid.


      She lays the pen on the table. (Present tense)
      He is laying the bag on the ground. (Present participle)
      I laid the book down. (Past tense)
      You have laid the blanket on the armrest. (Past participle)

      So, let's look closer at the usage of these words, in present tense.

      First, intransitive lie:

      I lie down. I (subject) lie (verb) down (adverb).

      This clause has no object. That's how you can be sure that you should use the intransitive 'lie'; I'm not doing anything to anything else.

      Now, transitive lay:

      I lay you down. I (subject) lay (verb) you (object) down (adverb).

      This clause has an object. I am laying you down, you in this case being the object (in the grammatical sense; I'm not objectifying you). Since I'm doing something to you, you know to use the transitive verb.

      For comparison, another transitive verb is put (which is sometimes interchangeable with lay). It is a verb that requires an object. I (subject) put (verb) the knife (object) down (adverb).

      'But!' you shout. 'What about "now I lay me down to sleep"??' Well, as strange as it may seem if you're not accustomed to grammatical terms, in that sentence you are both subject and object. That is to say, I is the subject and me is the object. So that sentence is perfectly correct. 'I lie down to sleep', but 'I lay me down to sleep'.

      This, I think, brings us neatly to the next point.

      1.4 Pronouns

      Pronouns are intrinsically linked to nouns, in that they are used in place of nouns when the noun itself is not needed. Pronouns can, as such, be both subjects and objects, and in fact, some pronouns come in both subjective and objective forms for just that purpose. There are many different kinds of pronouns, but I'm going to limit this guide to personal pronouns.

      Personal pronouns come in first, second, and third person singular and plural. And each pronoun has a subjective, objective, and either one or two possessive forms. Additionally, third person pronouns come in masculine, feminine, and neutrum. You already know these, but just in case, let’s review, starting with singular.

      1st person: I, me, my, mine
      2nd person: you, you, your, yours
      3rd person: she, her, her hers / he, him, his, his / it, it, its, its

      And plural:

      1st person: we, us, our, ours
      2nd person: you, you, your, yours
      3rd person: they, them, their, theirs

      And finally, just to be thorough, I’ll briefly address the singular they. The singular they has been a part of the English language since the very birth of modern English, more than half a millennium ago. It is grammatically correct, and it can be used to refer to specific persons rather than just when a person’s gender is unknown. Because language does evolve, all major English dictionaries now acknowledge this use of the singular they as well.

      There is some confusion in certain sentences about the objective and subjective forms of pronouns. For instance, should it be Pete and I, or should it be Pete and me? Well, are we subjects or objects?

      Observe the following examples:

      Pete and I are going to school.
      She gave the apples to Pete and me.

      In the first sentence, Pete and I are the subject of the sentence. We are the ones going to school. However, in the second, she is the subject, and she’s giving the apples to us, the objects. Hence, the objective me. You can also think of it this way: if you replaced Pete and I with first person plural instead, would it be we or us? In case of the former, I is correct, while for the latter, me is correct. Same with she/her and he/him. Would you use they or them in plural?

      The possessive forms depend on the order of the words in a sentence. The book is mine, but it’s my book. It’s our house or the house is ours. That’s your cat or that cat is yours. You are eating their food or the food you’re eating is theirs. This tree is hers or this is her tree. The only pronouns in which these forms are the same are his and its.

      I hope this has made a modicum of sense to you. Next up, I'll be getting into adjectives and adverbs. Until then, have fun and scribble well!
      Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 08-26-2020, 01:23 AM.


      • #4
        2. Adjectives and Adverbs

        Adjectives and adverbs fulfil a similar function in that they both describe or modify other words; adjectives modify nouns and adverbs modify verbs. The Latin adverb literally translates as to the verb. The word adjective is related to the Latin for atribute. So, the adjective describes the atributes of the noun, while the adverb is an addition to the verb.

        2.1 Adjectives

        We’ll start with adjectives, which is a fairly simple concept you likely learned in school and had beaten into your head with a sledgehammer by your teachers. As previously mentioned, adjectives describe a noun. They are words like sweet, angry, rough, or wooden. They are also colours, like blue, yellow, and red. Any word that describes a thing, person, place, or any other noun or pronoun, is an adjective.

        Like verbs, adjectives can be conjugated, but not according to tense. Rather, they are conjugated comparatively or according to intensity. All adjectives can be modified by more, most, less, and least. Some adjectives don’t requite more and most as modifiers, but can conjugated on their own. You’d likely say cute, cuter, and cutest, but you wouldn’t say adorable, adorabler, and adorablest. You would say more adorable and most adorable. Same with, say, angry and furious. The latter requires modifiers, the former does not.

        You can, of course, also say more cute and more angry, and depending on context that may be preferable. But you cannot say more cuter or more angrier, nor can you say most cutest or most angriest. (I mean, you can, but it’s not correct English.) You either conjugate the adjective itself, or you use the modifiers, never both. To repeat an example I used in the introduction:

        The cat is cute.
        This cat is cuter than that cat.
        This cat is the cutest cat there ever was.

        2.2 Adverbs

        Now for the adverbs. If you move in certain writing circles, you may have heard the statement, ‘I never use adverbs in my writing.’ You may, based on this and possibly also based on your schooling, think that adverbs are words that end in -ly, and that using those words is lazy and makes for bad prose. You think of examples such as this:

        ‘I don’t want to go to school!’ she said angrily.
        ‘Well, you have to,’ said her father exasperatedly.

        When a far more engaging way of writing that could be:

        ‘I don’t want to go to school!’ she shouted, stomping her foot.
        Her father gave a long suffering sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘Well, you have to.’

        There’s no real question about which prose is better. But there is a major problem with ‘I never use adverbs in my writing.’ For one, there are absolutely moments where using a -ly adverb is entirely called for, and many fantastic and celebrated authors use them, sometimes in abundance. For another, never is also an adverb.

        Remember, adverbs are words that modify verbs in some way, and that includes a whole bunch of words that don’t end in -ly.

        -Ly adverbs, also known as adverbs of manner, you could think of as verb-modifying adjectives. They are descriptive. They describe the action that is being performed by telling you how it’s being performed. Angrily, sweetly, reverently, softly, sadly, etc. Remove the -ly, and most of these words are adjectives that can be used to describe nouns or pronouns. However, no adverbs can be conjugated like some adjectives can, and most adverbs cannot be modified with more or most.

        The similarities of -ly adverbs and adjectives can lead to some confusion. Take bad and badly, for example:

        I feel bad for him.
        I feel badly for him.

        Bad is an adjective, badly is an adverb. Bad refers back to I, the subject. I am the one that feels bad on his behalf. Badly, on the other hand, refers to feel, the verb. The word badly is often used as a verb-modifier to denote intensity. I want you badly, for instance. In the case of I feel badly for him, you could replace badly with strongly. You feel for him, and you feel a lot. As you see, these two sentences have different meaning. Saying I feel badly for him when you mean that you feel bad on his behalf is kind of like saying, the house is redly. It is not. It is red, and red refers to the house, not to the verb to be.

        As I said, though, there are other kinds of adverbs than ones that end in -ly. Adverbs specify the circumstance of an action. For instance, there are adverbs to do with the time when the action is taking place. I will do it tomorrow. Tomorrow is an adverb. It modifies to do. Often, words that answer when, where, or how are adverbs. Examples of adverbs pertaining to when are then, later, tomorrow, never, earlier, before, sometimes, and yesterday. Here, there, up, down, and somewhere are words that answer where. And adverbs that answer how tend to be -ly adverbs, though somehow is also an adverb. When did I do it? Yesterday. Where did I do it? There. How did I do it? Quickly but poorly.

        Thanks for reading! Next time we'll be tackling prepositions and conjunctions.
        Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 08-26-2020, 01:24 AM.


        • #5
          3. Prepositions and Conjunctions

          I suppose you could say that if nouns, verbs, and pronouns are the vegetables in our word salad, and adjectives and adverbs are the spices that add flavour, prepositions and conjunctions are the dressing that makes it all stick together. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy or not, but as I’m typing this, I’m hungry.

          Prepositions and conjunctions tie the sentence together. Prepositions by tying verbs to nouns and pronouns, and conjunctions by joining together clauses, both dependent and independent.

          3.1 Prepositions

          The use of prepositions is actually explained in the word itself. Pre-position. It is a word that comes before the noun and any modifiers of the noun, such as adjectives. In the sentence I went to school, to is the preposition, coming before school. It is pre-positioned in front of the noun. Another thing that might help you remember is that a lot of prepositions also indicate position. In, beneath, above, to, from, between, inside, and near are all prepositions. Prepositions such as of, like, and except aren’t positions exactly, but they do tell you something about the noun relative to something else.

          In I went to school, the preposition helps to convey the information that the school is somewhere else than where I went from. We can use more prepositions to more clearly convey the location of the school as well.

          The school is on a hill outside the town.

          There are also prepositional phrases that in their entirety function the same way as prepositions. Examples of these include in front of and with regard to. Front and regard are, by themselves, nouns (or verbs, depending on the use; I regard them highly vs send them my regards), but in, of, with, and to are all prepositions, and they wrap the noun up, in a way, making the entire phrase a preposition.

          In English, it would be impossible to convey anything but the simplest thought without the use of prepositions.

          3.2 Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

          You may have heard the statement, Never end a sentence with a preposition. I don’t like words like never and always when it comes to writing prose, fiction in particular. We’re told that sentences like Where do you come from? are grammatically incorrect. But the alternative, From where do you come? doesn’t really sound right in contemporary English. If you always avoid prepositions at the end of sentences, you risk ending up sounding like Yoda. There’s a joke that goes something like this: Why do people hate copyeditors when we are such nice people out with whom to hang?

          That said, there are many instances where you can move the preposition away from the end of the sentence and get a better sentence. You may risk sounding a little archaic, but sometimes that’s okay or even desirable. With whom am I speaking? Sometimes you can remove the preposition entirely and rebuild the sentence for the same meaning. The school I go to could also be the school I attend. Also note that some prepositions can become nouns when used in certain ways. It came from above is an example where a word that’s normally a preposition is used as a noun. Above is here a place, perhaps signifying heaven, or just the sky.

          3.3 Conjunctions

          The most common conjunctions are sometimes summed up with the acronym FANBOYS. These words are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are, as previously mentioned, words that bind clauses or words together. Because is also a conjunction.

          Would you like chicken or fish?

          Here, or ties together the words chicken and fish. They are related because they are two options between which you must choose. (By the way, that last bit is an example of how to move a preposition away from the end of the sentence, in this case between.)

          I wanted my blue dress, but I couldn’t find it.

          In this example, but is the conjunction and joins two independent clauses that are nevertheless connected by context.

          The meal was tasty yet healthy.

          Yet connects tasty with healthy by creating a contrast, with the assumption that foods that are tasty are not normally healthy and vice versa.

          He was unhappy, for he missed his home very much.

          The word for as a conjunction can often be replaced with because or since, which are also conjunctions. It indicates that the first clause is a result of the second. (For is also a preposition, such as in the sentence I’m happy for you, and so is since.)

          She had a lot of work, so she went to the office after all.

          The conjunction so indicates that the second clause is the result of the first.

          I adore chocolates and strawberries.

          Here, and tells us that I enjoy both these things by tying them together.

          She liked neither him nor his friends.

          Nor is related to or, but whereas or indicates one or the other, nor means none of the above. You can say or is tied to either and nor to neither.

          – Would you like chicken or fish?
          – Neither; I’m a vegetarian.

          3.4 Beginning a Sentence With a Conjunction

          In primary school, you were most likely taught never to begin a sentence with and or but. This is nonsense and there is no such rule, so you can just throw that out the window. Likely, it was invented by school teachers to prevent children from writing texts with endless sentences beginning with and then, but conjunctions have been used to begin sentences for as long as English has existed as a language. Often, putting a period before a conjunction adds clarity and emphasis by setting the clauses apart. But (see what I did there?) since the second clause is still referring to the previous one, a conjunction is still needed.

          Because is a conjunction that frequently begins sentences. Because I wasn’t feeling well, I decided to stay home.

          Hope this all made sense to you. Thanks for reading!


          • #6
            4. The Common Confusions

            While I’ve gone over a few things people tend to find confusing already, I thought I might briefly address some more words that are commonly misused or the correct use of which is confusing to some.

            4.1 Who or Whom?

            Who is a pronoun, believe it or not. So, as it happens, are what and which, but as opposed to these, who, much like the personal pronouns we addressed earlier, has both subjective, objective, and possessive forms. The possessive is whose. Who is subjective (such as I or she), while the objective form (like me and her) is whom. People are often confused as to when it is correct to use whom, however.

            Who, along with what and which, is an interrogative pronoun. It’s most commonly used to ask a question. The basic rule is that if the answer to your question is an object (me, her, him, us, them), the question should be whom. If the answer is a subject (I, she, he, we, they), the question should be who.

            – To whom am I speaking?
            – You are speaking to me.

            You, the subject, are speaking to me, the object.

            – Who let the dogs out?
            – She did.

            She, the subject, performed the action of letting out the dogs.

            All that said, though, when in doubt about whether to use who or whom when writing fiction, default to who. It’s perfectly acceptable, in informal contemporary English, to forego the objective whom, and a misplaced whom is frightfully conspicuous.

            4.2 May or Might?

            This is, for the most part, a question of tense. May is present tense, while might is past.

            I think I may.
            I thought I might.

            But where it gets complicated is when might is occasionally used in present tense as well. This is because might is sometimes used for something unlikely or hypothetical, for suggestions and possibilities, as well as idiomatically as part of certain phrases and expressions.

            It might be true.
            Might I ask if . . . ?
            Who might this be?

            Think of cases where you might in present tense use could and would in place of can and will. This is a similar mechanic to might.

            Who could it be at this hour?
            If you would be so kind.

            4.3 Was or Were?

            An interesting quirk of English, a remnant from the more complex Germanic grammatical structure, is the occasional use of were in place of was in first and third person singular. Much like present tense might, first and third person were suggests a hypothetical. Where there’s an if or a wish involved, most often it should be were.

            If I were a rich man.
            I wish I were there with you.
            If he were a better person.
            If only it weren’t true.

            As with who and whom, however, when if doubt, just use was.


            • #7
              Part Two: Punctuation

              5. Commas

              The three most important kinds of punctuation are the comma, the period, and the question mark. The common way to explain how these works are as follows: you use a period when a sentence ends, you use a question mark when the sentence is a question, and you use a comma when there's a pause. You start the next word after a period or a question mark with an upper case letter, and you start the next word after a comma with lower case. This you probably know already. What I want to get into, which is something a lot of writers struggle with, myself included, is the proper use of commas. But first, let’s kill a myth once and for all: Use a comma when there’s a pause is a simplistic and sometimes incorrect statement.

              These are a few of the most important comma rules. First of all, a comma should be used
              • to separate two independent clauses
              • to separate items in a list
              • after introductory clauses, words, or phrases
              • to set off non-essential clauses, words, or phrases
              • to separate two or more adjectives that describe the same noun
              • to set off phrases at the end of a sentence that refer to the beginning or middle of the sentence or to indicate a pause or shift
              That's a lot of grammar terms. Don't worry, I'll go through each one in detail.

              5.1 Independent Clauses

              As we’ve already been over, an independent clause is a part of a sentence that could stand on its own and contains a subject and verb. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing affecting the verb, i.e. the thing that does something. Clauses often (though not always) also contain an object, the person or thing to which something is being done.


              The boy went to school.

              In this sentence, the boy is the subject and went (past tense of to go) is the verb. This sentence is one independent clause. However, the following sentence

              The boy went to school, but the school was closed.

              consists of two independent clauses. In the first clause, the boy is the subject, but in the second clause, the school is the subject. The school was closed is an independent clause that could stand on its own. Therefore, they should be separated by a comma.


              The boy went to school with his friend.

              This sentence, once again, does not consist of two independent clauses. The boy is the only subject of the sentence. Hence, no comma.

              It's easy now to think that you should always have a comma before a conjunction, but that would be a mistake. There should only be a comma before a conjunction if what comes after is an independent clause.


              Incorrect: She went to the store, and bought some milk.
              Correct: She went to the store and bought some milk.

              Incorrect: The speech was short, but engaging.
              Correct: The speech was short but engaging.


              Correct: She went to the store, and the store had a sale on milk.
              Correct: The speech was short, but the audience found it engaging.

              5.2 Lists

              In addition to separating clauses, commas are frequently used when making lists. A list contains three or more items, and the final item normally has a conjunction (most commonly and or or) in front of it. If you have only two items, they should be separated by a conjunction without a comma.


              cats, dogs, and ferrets
              chicken, fish, or vegetables
              hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades
              my sister, her wife, and their friends

              You'll notice that I use a comma before the conjunction in all these lists. This is known as the Oxford comma and is not strictly necessary. Some feel it should be used to avoid confusion. A common example goes something like this:

              I would like to thank my parents, Dolly Parton and Nelson Mandela.

              The way this sentence is constructed, you could interpret it to say that Dolly Parton and Nelson Mandela are my parents. The Oxford comma can help avoid this potential confusion.

              I would like to thank my parents, Dolly Parton, and Nelson Mandela.

              There is no hard rule that states you must use an Oxford comma, nor is there one that states you must be consistent with its use. Style guides differ on whether it should be used at all. You are welcome to use it only when you find it necessary or not at all (though this can occasionally lead to hilarity). Sometimes, an Oxford comma breaks up the flow of a sentence. Other times, it’s necessary to avoid confusion.

              5.3 Introductory Clauses, Words, and Phrases

              An introductory clause, word, or phrase comes at the beginning of a sentence, before the main clause. Simply put, if the next part of the sentence is an independent clause, it should have a comma before it. Introductory clauses often begin with adverbs or prepositions.


              When he returned from school, the house was empty.
              Since I was still hungry, I had another slice.
              Because it didn't work, we tried something else.

              Most introductory clauses can instead be placed after the main clause, in which case there should not be a comma.


              The house was empty when he returned from school.
              I had another slice since I was still hungry.
              We tried something else because it didn't work.

              Introductory words include well, yes, no, and however.


              Well, I wouldn't want to brag.
              Yes, that sounds like a good idea.
              No, I don't think so.
              However, there may not be time.

              A few examples of introductory phrases are:

              Having finished school, he went home.
              To finish on time, she has to work hard.
              After spending some time alone, I decided to go outside.

              Most of these sentences, too, you could flip around, placing the introductory phrase after the main clause.

              5.4 Non-essential Clauses, Words, and Phrases

              By non-essential, we mean information that isn't necessary to understand the sentence. Call them extras. They are interjected into the sentence and should have commas both before and after. If the sentence would make sense without them, they interrupt the flow of words in the sentence, or they could be inserted anywhere in the sentence and it would still make sense, they are non-essential. This can sometimes include names as well, for instance when introducing a person in the context of their role, with the name as an aside (see example below).


              Clause: The man, who was tall and broad-shouldered, smiled at me.
              Phrase: The cat, on the other hand, refused to budge.
              Word: You could argue, however, that it's unnatural for humans to drink cow's milk.
              Name: My brother, Steven, will be joining us for dinner.

              Note, in the case of the non-essential phrase, that it could often be used as an introductory phrase as well. Some introductory phrases are non-essential. Non-essential words can usually be inserted in several different places in a sentence as well. For instance, in the example above, the word however could just as easily come after could, at the beginning of the sentence, or at the end.

              5.5 Adjectives

              When you have two or more adjectives describing a thing, they should be separated by commas, much like when you make a list. These are called coordinate adjectives. But be careful not to put a comma before the noun or before a non-coordinate adjective. If the adjectives are non-coordinate, it means that one of the adjectives is more important to the noun than the others. In order to determine if the adjectives are coordinate or not, ask yourself whether the sentence would make sense if you changed the order or if you put and between the adjectives. If yes, they're coordinate.


              A large, blue house (coordinate)
              A large blue whale (non-coordinate)

              The house is a thing that is blue. You could say a blue, large house (though the above sounds more natural), and it would still make sense, so these adjectives are coordinate. However, a blue whale is a species of whale. Blue is still an adjective, but it is intrinsically linked to the word whale. It does not simply describe the noun, it is in a sense a part of the noun. If you put blue before large, the sentence would change its meaning. Likewise if you put and between them. Therefore, in this sentence large and blue are non-coordinate.

              The comfy, red scarf (coordinate)
              The comfy woollen scarf (non-coordinate)

              In the first sentence, you comfy and red could change places, or you could put an and between them. In the latter, woollen scarf is one thing. Putting woollen before comfy would not convey the same meaning.

              Incorrect: A large, woollen, sweater

              This sentence, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, has far too mant commas. Woollen and large are non-coordinate and should not be separated by a comma, and even if this were not the case, there should never be a comma between an adjective and a noun.

              5.6 At the End of Sentences

              We often use commas before certain clauses, phrases, or even words at the end of sentences. Sometimes, these are contrasts to the main clause, or you want a pause or shift there.


              You like chocolate, right?
              I'm ugly, not stupid.

              They can also be modifiers referring to the middle or beginning of the sentence. These are free modifiers that can be placed elsewhere in the sentence too, such as the beginning.

              She closed the door behind her, feeling exhausted.
              They watched the spectacle, laughing.

              Right! That's been a (brief-ish?) introduction to commas! Commas are the hardest part, so the rest should be a piece of cake, right? :P The next chapter will deal with hyphens, dashes, and ellipses, as well as a few special rules, and possibly a brief bit about colons and semi-colons. After that, I'm going to tackle dialogue punctuation, one of the fiction author’s most important skills. Til next time!
              Last edited by Thorn Wilde; 08-21-2020, 12:47 PM.


              • Siryn Sueng
                Siryn Sueng commented
                Editing a comment
                Wow! Thank you very much for all of this Thorn! I will do my best for further posts (and I'll work on editing my prologue ^.^) I also have to agree with Wgray that commas are the devil LOL

              • Thorn Wilde
                Thorn Wilde commented
                Editing a comment
                Siryn Sueng I couldn't agree more. Commas are annoying as all hell. lol!