I don’t have the time this week to do a lesson on a writing skill. However, I do have time for a quick grammar lesson.
One of the most common errors I see is incorrect placement of commas with conjunctions.
Put commas BEFORE these conjunctions: and, but, so, because
WRONG: Jan went to the refrigerator and, she stared bleakly at its meager contents.
RIGHT: Jan knew there was tiramisu in the refrigerator, and she ate the last piece before Ben got home.
WRONG: Sophie is a wonderful cat but, I wish she wouldn't spit at strangers.
RIGHT: Sophie is a wonderful cat, but she seems to despise my sons-in-law.
WRONG: I am saving my money so, I can buy a complete set of ‘Knight Rider’ on DVD.
RIGHT: I am saving my money, so I can buy a complete set of ‘The Muppet Show’ on DVD.
WRONG: My friends love to look at my pictures because, I am an amazing photographer.
RIGHT: My friends love to look at my pictures, because my granddaughters are phenomenally cute.
If you use one of those conjunctions to begin a sentence (yes, I know that your high school teacher told you not to. I’m telling you that you may, if you do it well), do not use a comma.
WRONG: Jan practiced the Chopin etude for months. And, despite all those hours, she was unable to master it. Because, there were just too many notes on the page. So, she shrugged her shoulders and closed the lid over the piano keys. But, a few days later, she tried again.
I know that you’d never write anything as horrible as that last paragraph. But you may save it, if you wish, as a reminder of several things you should never do. (And note the correct use of ‘but’ without a comma in this paragraph, and one other correct usage that you should be able to find by yourself.)
On the other hand, there are many other conjunctions—actually conjunctive adverbs, but that’s only important to grammarians--which should be followed by commas, and I frequently see them without punctuation. These conjunctions usually begin sentences or clauses.
WRONG: Finally Jan could play the first page of the etude without a mistake.
RIGHT: Finally, Jan could play Chopsticks without a mistake.
WRONG: Meanwhile the downstairs neighbors learned to wear headphones while she practiced.
RIGHT: Meanwhile, the downstairs neighbors made cookies to celebrate.
WRONG: Of course poor Chopin was rolling in his grave.
RIGHT: Of course, poor Chopin is still decomposing.
There are dozens of these words and phrases—you might want to google “list of conjunctions” and print up a list of them, if this is a problem area for you.
No homework this week, but I’ll be happy to respond to your questions or comments.