The Comma

August 9, 2009

comma

When learning a language, people always think about learning the grammar, the pronunciation, and the vocabulary to improve their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.  In fact, this is what most language tests focus on.  With regards to improving one’s writing, punctuation is very important but often neglected. 

In the next several entries, let us take a look at some of the punctuation marks in the English language and their usage.  Believe it or not, punctuating properly could help you win more points on the next writing task!

Let’s start with the comma!  A comma marks a short pause in speech and is used for clarification purposes.    

1.                  Separate items in a series which has three or more items.  “She was commended for her hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the job.”  While some may argue that the last comma (the one after ‘dedication’) is not necessary, the presence of this serial comma or Oxford comma helps readability, especially when the items mentioned are complex or lengthy. My recommendation is to always include this comma as anything that helps your reader will mean a higher score for you!  (You may find that this comma is not present in newspaper articles.) 

2.                  Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, yet, for, nor, or).  “She has been asked to translate for the company’s clients many times, but she was not receiving a bilingual bonus for it.” 

3.                 Before direct speech.

She said to her clients, “We greatly appreciate your business.”

4.                 In non-defining/non-restrictive relative clauses.

“The people, who had lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  (Meaning: Everyone in line had lined up since last night and was able to purchase the new video game.)  Notice that sometimes the ‘who’ may be missing. “The people, lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  Contrast this with: “The people who lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Only the people who had lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.)

5.                 To set off an introductory phrase or an interjection.

“Related to your job performance, we believe you deserve a promotion.”

“We believe, May, that your job performance should be commended.” 

This also goes for greetings, like in an email message:

Hi, May (although we often see “Hi May” instead, as people treat it like “Dear May”)

Thank you, May

Good morning, May

6.               To separate descriptive adjectives. (See my entry on Order of Adjectives.)

There are three instances when a comma is needed.  First, when adjectives are repeated for the purpose of intensification (‘big, big project’).  Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning and not incompatible with each so that if one is missing, the overall meaning is not lost (‘charming, attractive manager’).   Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence (‘expensive, French black suit’). 

7.                  To set off a contrasting phrase.

“It was her dedication, not her charm, which won her supervisor’s support.”

8.        For typographical reasons.

With dates – “She started working for the company on December 1, 2004.”  Without a date, the comma is not needed. “She started working for the company in December 2004.”

With place names – “The company is located in Santa Monica, California, a city near the coast.” 

With numbers – “The net worth of the company is $1,000,000.”

With name and suffix (although the comma may often be omitted) – “The president of the company is John Smith, Jr.”

 

There may be other instances where a comma is appropriate to avoid confusion.  However, do not overdo it either! 

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Obama’s inaugural speech

July 24, 2009

obama

 

Obama’s inaugural speech is one of the greatest speeches given in our generation, which he delivered without needing to refer to a piece of paper!  From the standpoint of learning English, it is definitely worth learning from it.  For a full transcript of his speech, please visit the New York Times.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

As with any piece of writing, speeches also contain an introduction.  Here, Obama states the main ideas of what is to follow. In fact, these three themes are to echo throughout his speech.  Notice that one can add an “am” before the three adjectives (humbled, grateful, and mindful), so that it looks like the sentence “I am happy”.  It would be, “I stand here today [and am] humbled…” or rearranged so that the subject ‘I’ stays together with the verb and adjective, “Standing here today, I am humbled…” 

Then, notice that Obama chooses to use the passive voice in the prepositional phrase following the adjective.  The agents (the task, you, and our ancestors) are not concrete or specific.  This ambiguity draws in the listener as Obama is trying to reach a large audience. Also, notice that Obama could have used ‘by’ in the second phrase, “…grateful for the trust bestowed by you…”  Here, the ‘you’ is rearranged to highlight the importance of his audience and to draw them closer. 

Other examples: I am happy about the grade given by my teacher. 

She is blessed with financial stability her job has provided. OR She is blessed with financial stability provided by her job. 

Even though Obama’s speech is spoken and is meant to be heard, in normal conversations, the active voice is usually used.  Using the passive voice profusely in conversation is not appropriate.  Speeches such as these are actually more like a form of writing than conversation.  

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

The choice of words throughout the speech is very clever, especially in this segment.  To give his audience a visual, Obama adds “rising tides of” in front of ‘prosperity’ and “still waters of” in front of ‘peace’.  To show the contrast of prosperity and peace, he uses two contrasting pictures of water.  Also, rather than saying “…the oath is taken amidst the current economic recession”, this is replaced with “the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms”, very appropriate figurative language and sticking to the same theme of water.  This segment concludes with “ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents”, which replaces the more commonly seen terms “forefathers” with “forebears” and “the Constitution” or “the Bill of Rights” with “founding documents”.  While using a variety of words is encouraged, be careful.  We need to make sure we fully understand the meaning and usage of the words.  One good source to consult is a Cobuild Dictionary. 

The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

English learners sometimes avoid using short sentences, being afraid that teachers/graders/markers frown upon them.  Yet, actually, it depends on how it is used.  If used correctly, it could be quite effective, as demonstrated here by Obama.  Here, Obama talks about the war scene back when America fought for independence.  With these three short sentences, Obama paints a picture of the war.  Notice also that these three sentences are in the passive voice which makes the tone uniform, heightening the effect.  Such short sentences could be incorporated into writing stories and essays.  For example, in stories, it could be a scene opener.  As for essays, it could be used to put emphasis on a point. 

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.  We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs.  We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.  All this we can do. All this we will do.

In this segment, notice Obama repeats the same sentence structure (We + will + verb + direct object) over and over again.  Here, Obama is trying to identify with his audience and such a uniform structure makes a bigger emphasis. The only exception is the sentence “All this we can do”.  This change in sentence structure is used as an attention catcher and by using “can” (meaning potential), Obama tries to instill confidence in his audience.  Yet, after this, he reverts back to the same structure “All this we will do”.  Such is effective in persuasive writing.