Earlier this week, I discussed the importance of avoiding purple prose, so today we'll focus another extreme. While I stressed the importance of writing simply, that meant avoiding excessive use of adverbs, adjectives, and flowery language. And though you don't want your writing to seem overdone, you should still aim for complexity in structure. With that in mind, we'll look at choppiness in writing, how to identify and eliminate it from your prose. What Is Choppiness? Ultimately, choppy writing does not flow. Among Merriam-Webster's definitions for choppy include “jerky” and “disconnected,” which is how this writing style feels to those reading it. It is characterized by lack of variation in sentence structure, producing too many short sentences in a row with simple subjects and predicates. And while simple sentences have their place, especially when trying to create a sense of urgency, too many of them makes your writing seem unsophisticated and communicates an inability to express complex thought. Consider these examples: Linda took music lessons. She was tone deaf with no sense of rhythm. She gave up the notion of becoming a concert pianist. Sherri finishes writing a novel. She sets it aside for at least a month. She then begins revising. James visited with us last weekend. He is my former boss. Kristy was exhausted. She stared at the computer screen. She was unable to write a single word. Obviously, you wouldn't want to read a book written like this, or even an article for that matter. So how can we rewrite these? Solutions for Choppy Writing Even the best writers will occasionally have choppy passages in their prose, so if you struggle with this, you're not alone. But as far as style problems are concerned, choppiness is easy to repair, and improving your writing flow is a skill that can be learned. Keep the following options in mind as you rewrite choppy passages. 1. Connect actions using coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. Simple sentences with the same subject can be joined with a conjunction. Applying it to one of the examples gives us this result: Choppy: Linda took music lessons. She was tone deaf with no sense of rhythm. She gave up the notion of becoming a concert pianist. Revised: Linda took music lessons but discovered she was tone deaf with no sense of rhythm, so she gave up the notion of becoming a concert pianist. 2. Show logical connections between ideas. Conjunctions can also assist you here, but in a different way. Rather than connecting actions by the same subject, you're showing cause and effect relationships. Let's look at another example: Choppy: Sherri finishes writing a novel. She sets it aside for at least a month. She then begins revising. Revised: After Sherri finishes writing a novel, she sets it aside for at least a month before she begins revising. 3. Use appositives. Appositives can be effective when you have more than one sentence with the same subject. Often one of the sentences can be reduced to a parenthetical phrase or clause set off by commas. Let's try it with one of the examples: Choppy: James visited with us last weekend. He is my former boss. Revised: James, my former boss, visited with us last weekend. 4. Create modifying or introductory phrases and clauses. You can also break up the monotony of choppiness by converting one or more of the sentences into introductory phrases or modifiers. And again, we can apply it to one of the example passages. Choppy: Kristy was exhausted. She stared at the computer screen. She was unable to write a single word. Revised: Exhausted, Kristy stared at the computer screen, unable to write a single word. Don't Overdo It The key here is to vary sentence structure. Some short ones are good and can have significant impact when appropriately placed. Besides too many long sentences in a row can be just as monotonous as the alternative. Also, don't string too many statements together. Long, rambling sentences can be taxing to read, and this practice can also lead to run ons. As with anything else, moderation is key.
Did I “begin with the end in mind”? In this case, I didn't. While it's good to stick with a plan (one of my 3 words), sometimes it's best to go where the flow of your ideas takes you. I've never had trouble coming up with writing ideas. Organizing them, well, that's a different story, but it also helps to know when to stop. In this case, rather than burn you and myself out on grammar tips, I'm going to end this series here and return to my original editorial calendar. There are more grammar myths, and perhaps I'll cover them at a later date. But for now, it's time to move on.
Ironically, this series ends with another myth regarding beginnings—in this case, starting a sentence with because. This one stood out in my mind since I often attempted this in my writing in school and was admonished for it. It didn't make sense to me that I couldn't begin sentences with because while using a similar word was acceptable.
The Grammar Myth
This common grammar myth, like others, usually begins in elementary school. Teachers caution students not to answer questions in sentences beginning with because. Why? If handled carelessly, starting a sentence with because can result in a fragment. Answers such as “Because of gravity” or “Because matter takes up space” are key examples of what teachers were trying to discourage. However, this often encompasses more than just fragments like those mentioned here.
The Truth about Starting Sentences with Because
While you should avoid using fragments like the ones mentioned above, this rule does not cover a broad spectrum. Both Merriam Webster and American Heritage confirm that starting sentences with because is not erroneous. After all, beginning a clause with because is acceptable when it introduces a complete sentence, as in the following example:
Because students are admonished for starting sentences with because, many writers shun the practice in their work.
Perhaps I'm belaboring the point, but if you want further validation, consider this line from one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me.
Granted, creative writing tends to bend the rules at times, especially poetry. But would you really want to rewrite those lines so they wouldn't begin with because? I didn't think so.
With that, this series comes to a close. Hopefully, this series has been helpful. Most of the time grammar does, in fact, accommodate creative writing. It's the grammar myths that stifle it.
Monday's post was not meant to begin a series, but after discussing one grammar myth, I thought of others. So it makes sense to share them within reasonable proximity of one another with a few breaks. To avoid overkill, this short series will only only cover the most well-known ones that you are most likely to use in your writing. And, as the title implies, the second grammar is ending sentences with prepositions.
Trying to avoid beginning with a conjunction often leads to either long rambling sentences or short choppy ones. However, attempting to end certain sentences without a closing preposition can result in a narrative that is awkward at best and always appears forced. I've handled manuscripts where clients went to great lengths to keep prepositions away from the end of a sentence, which resulted in difficult reading. Writing these passages couldn't have been fun either. So hopefully this will allow you to write as the words they flow, rather than forcing awkward passages.
When You Can End a Sentence with a Preposition
I'll avoid going into the reasons why it's acceptable to end sentences with prepositions. After all, you're here for tips to improve your writing, not to read an online grammar textbook. So let's focus on when you can rather than why.
1. Questions: Consider the following example.
What did you step in?
Obviously, you can't remove the preposition entirely. Yes, you could rewrite it as “In what did you step?” But that would be awkward and stand out, interrupting the flow of the text. Besides that, people don't talk like this, particularly a parent trying to clean some unknown substance from Junior's shoes.
2. Phrasal verbs: Questions are often exceptions to rules because of their structure. However, since this is a grammar myth rather than a rule with an exception, let's look at a few more examples. When discussing ending sentences with prepositions, it's impossible not to address phrasal verbs.
A phrasal verb, also called a compound verb, is made up of two or more words, often a verb and a preposition ( examples: wake up, look after, leave off, etc.), as in the following:
She would not wake up.
This is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Furthermore, you cannot restructure it to eliminate the final preposition.
3. Other sentences: Of course, some sentences that do not use phrasal verbs can end with a preposition.
Jack did not know where Lizzy came from.
Do you really want to write, “Jack did not know from where Lizzy came”? For most cases like this, ending with a preposition will simply avoid awkward, pedantic structures.
In situations where writing is expected to be formal, you will probably want to adhere to the myth since so many people believe it is true and will judge you based on it. You can always point out that it is a myth later.
Ultimately, writing is about communication. Always choose words that will help you communicate most effectively and efficiently.
With New Year's Eve just a few days away, when we join friends and family to celebrate the beginning of a new year, it seems appropriate to discuss another topic that involves bringing grammatical elements together. Conjunctions immediately come to mind. The mighty conjunction connects words, clauses, phrases, and sentences.
However, not all conjunctions are created equal, or more precisely, not all grammatical structures they join are equal. The two main classes of conjunctions are coordinate and subordinate, and knowing the difference will help you use them effectively and punctuate them properly.
When you mention conjunctions, most people think of the coordinating variety. The most common ones include and, but, or, and so. Coordinating conjunctions join words or groups of words that are equal in rank grammatically. For instance, in the following sentence a coordinating conjunction separates two nouns.
Jessica served tea and biscuits.
But as mentioned above, they can also join phrases and sentences as in the following examples:
Andrew picked up the ball and tossed it to his brother. Jen enjoys jogging in the park, but Dana prefers swimming at the local natatorium.
In these sentences, the conjunctions either join two predicates or independent clauses. When you use a conjunction to join two independent clauses, insert a comma between the first clause and the conjunction.
A subordinating conjunction, on the other hand, connects grammatical structures of unequal rank and introduces a clause that is dependent on the main sentence. The dependent clause can be introduced preceding the main clause in an introductory role, or it may follow the main clause to add meaning to the sentence. Some common subordinating conjunctions include the following:
As with coordinating conjunctions, the subordinate counterparts have a few punctuation rules to keep in mind. For example, when introducing a clause that precedes the main clause, insert a comma between the final word of the introductory clause and the first word of the main clause.
- as if
- as long as
- as though
- even if
- even though
- now that
- rather than
- so that
Before Miranda returned home, she enjoyed dinner at a local cafe with a friend.
However, if the subordinating conjunction follows the main clause, a comma is not necessary.
Bill remained in his office after his colleagues went home.
In this case, adding a comma was unnecessary because the subordinate clause was crucial to the meaning of the sentence.
Ultimately, the way you punctuate sentences with conjunctions can affect their meaning. Choose the placement of your commas carefully.
The last post was the first of my grammar and/or punctuation posts. In that post, I discussed the comma splice as an error and recommended three potential corrections for the problem. More often than not, you'll want to avoid using it. However, there are a few situations where a comma splice is not an error and is, in fact, the most effective punctuation for the sentence.
Keep the following in mind.
Really Short Clauses
One of these rare occasions is when the independent clauses are very short, especially when they have the same subject. In this case, the comma splice may be your best option. The sentence below shows the most famous example of this.
I came, I saw, I conquered.
Obviously, a semicolon would be too strong here, and breaking it up into separate sentences would be unnecessary with a choppy result. Yes, you could add a conjunction before “I conquered,” but the sentence will lose its rhythm. So the comma splice works.
Expression of Contrast
Another situation where the comma splice may be best is when two short independent clauses express contrast, as in the example below:
It is not a dolphin, it's a porpoise.
Once again, other punctuation could work here, but as before, it would either be overkill or the sentence would lose its tightness and rhythm.
To Use Comma Splices or Not to Use Them
Ultimately, while comma splices can be effective, it is best to use them sparingly. That way, when you need them, they will be all the more potent. Besides, more often than not, you will find better ways to punctuate your sentences.
As an aside, I will try in the future to space out my grammar posts so that this blog doesn't start looking like an online grammar textbook. I'll only post them back to back like this when they are part of a series or, as in this case, are covering closely related topics.
As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been fairly busy with editing projects for the past few weeks, and these busy times often provide plenty of material for relevant blog posts. For instance, one of my clients seems to have a love for commas, something I can relate to. If the situation seems borderline, I often opt to use the comma rather than go without. However, this doesn't mean I misplace them, but I suppose some love commas more than I do. In any event, one problem that I have run across in a current manuscript is the comma splice.
So What Is the Comma Splice?
A comma splice occurs when you join two independent clauses with a comma alone. In most cases, this is considered a run-on and requires correction. Consider the following sentences:
Tracy left her cell phone on her desk, she missed an important client call this afternoon. The article's headline is typical of Michael's writing, he has always had a knack for witticisms. Add a Conjunction
The way you choose to fix a comma splice will have a lot to do with the context of the sentence in question. One option is to add a coordinating conjunction after the comma, which would work well in the first example above:
Tracy left her cell phone on her desk, so she missed an important client call this afternoon.
Another conjunction could also be used in this example:
Tracy left her cell phone on her desk, and she missed an important client call this afternoon.
The context of the second sentence does not lend itself to the addition of a coordinating conjunction, so you will need different correction.
Replace the Comma with a Semicolon
When there is a close relationship between the clauses in question, a comma splice can be corrected with a semicolon. The second sentence in the original two examples lends itself to this:
The article's headline is typical of Michael's writing; he has always had a knack for witticisms.
The clauses in the first sentence have a cause-effect relationship that would allow the use of a semicolon, but this fix lacks the transition that using a conjunction adds, something definitely needed in that example.
Separate into Two Sentences
Although this is a grammatically correct remedy, separating the clauses into two sentences is a last resort. After all, writers tend to combine clauses for a reason. Both example sentences could be corrected this way, but the first example especially would result in a choppy pair of sentences.
However, like so many rules this one has an exception. Yes, there are times when using a comma splice is acceptable, but for the sake of time, I'll save that for another post.