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Writing Better: commas are cool

writing-300x200 Writing Better: commas are cool

Commas

The comma is a necessary instrument in the writer’s toolbox. Commas can be quite helpful to indicate to a reader that you, the writer, are pausing in your sentence flow; but they can also, if you let them, stop the reader too often and, unnecessarily, as in this sentence. The word “comma” comes from the Greek word kómma, meaning, cut off piece. In the above sentence you can see how pieces were indeed cut off from the main part of the sentence: “the writer” and “if you let it” being examples. The comma is used in lists (1,2,3,….), for the separation of independent clauses (I used go swimming all the time, but now I get in the water only sometimes), and to hive off various things (parenthetical phrases) in the sentence which are not part of the main, or independent, clause. Parenthetical phrases are a fun way to use a comma, by giving information that is not essential to the sentence. But, while not essential they can, in my opinion, be fairly close to it.

Consider this example:

~The Roman Emperor Constantine, while on the road to Rome, had a vision.~

While the sentence doesn’t need “while on the road to Rome,” it sure fills out the context for the sentence and looks like very important information for the reader. So, while not essential, it looks pretty close to it. Of course there are other ways to make this sentence, even without commas, but the point here is to use them.

writing-300x200 Writing Better: commas are cool

Another thing I like about commas is their use in a longer sentence where you get a few of those extra pieces thrown in, but the trick is making them flow so the reader continues tracking with you. Consider the following example:

~In all but a few cases, when making bread it is important to have a hot oven, up to 500 degrees, that is, if possible, to ensure that you get a proper rise.~

In this sentence, the author throws in three extra pieces, but the question is, do those extras throw the reader off and break up the flow between the words “oven” and “to ensure?” You can probably see that the writer is just at the edge of what a reader should be expected to stop and consider in the middle of the sentence, but throwing in one more would be inadvisable, such as:

~ In all but a few cases, when making bread it is important to have a hot oven, up to 500 degrees, that is, if possible, especially in light of the variability in oven temperature maximums, to ensure that you get a proper rise~

You can see how this seems strained, as if there was butter scraped over too much bread, as it were, and by the time we get to “to ensure,” we are only just able to connect it to the mother clause. But it is not that the sentence is too long; long sentences can be very effective if put together well. Consider this:

~Similar to scientists applying formula and technique to their matter in order to come up with physical laws, historians must engage in a critical analysis of the recorded actions of historical figures in order to suggest, not laws, but explanations of the probable motivations, whether internal or external, which best explain the actions of these people in light of other historical examples and the common experiences of human kind, including our own experience.[1]

In this example, much longer than the previous one, there is much more detail, but because there are less extra pieces thrown in, non-essentials, as it were,  we can follow and understand it more easily.

Use commas to throw in extra pieces to help the reader have a better understanding of context, but don’t throw in too many. Be kind to your readers, they are doing you the honor of reading your work, after all.

 

 

[1] See generally P.H. Nowell-Smith, Are Historical Events Unique?, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, vol. 57 (1956-1957): 107-160. Nowell-Smith makes a number of interesting observations germane to the question of historical events and entities, a few of which I will note here: “…despotism, the bourgeoisie and the Holy Roman Empire are all entities.” (140); “…historians use general words, and the use of such words presupposes the recognition of similarities. To talk of the Revolutions of 1688, 1789, and 1848 is already to recognize these events as similar in some respects.” [And yet for the historian who studies the Revolution of 1688, he recognizes there is no such thing as a typical revolution.] (117); “Explanation in history often takes the form, not of discovering the events with which a given event is causally connected in the regularity sense, but in expounding in detail in what the given event consisted.” (135).

Citation

The footnote is just a bonus for those interested, and to encourage the practice of citation in your own work. Always credit ideas you got from another person, unless what you are borrowing amounts to general knowledge: such as the fact that apples are a food horses like to eat. Who cares who wrote it first, it is general knowledge so don’t be afraid to use it. The trick is determining when a fact becomes so specific that it is no longer general knowledge. For instance, if I read somewhere that in a recent study it was found that horses preferred green apples, then I should cite that author and the study they cite for two reasons. The most important is that it is not general knowledge and you are taking specific information in the form of a claim about a fact from a source; the other less important reason is because if that information is something that interests the reader or the reader thinks it might be wrong for some reason, such as they have a horse that eats only red apples and spits the green ones out, they can then read it for themselves given your proper citation. So, in this post the comma was highlighted, next time I will talk about the semi-colon.

 

For more tips on writing better, click here.

For a more detailed guide on comma use, visit Purdue University’s Writing Lab. You can also read what grammar girl has to say on the subject.

Writers and History

We all write history. Whatever we write about in the realm of non-fiction is something from the past, or it may be our take on past events. In fact, there is no way those events could be anything else but past events; even if we are writing about our feelings, those feelings have to happen before we can write about them. Fiction writers also write about history, because everything they create is based on what they have experienced and learned in their own past. The fact that they are going beyond the bounds of reality in their imagined worlds does not prevent their own past experiences from setting the guideposts for what they portray happening in their stories. Why is this important? Well, as a historian myself, I have had many opportunities to learn about the limitations a historian faces when trying to explain a past event: quality of sources, personal inclinations, etc. So, if it is true that all writers engage with history, then I think some consideration of the things to watch out for when you are writing history may assist you to be “clearer” in your own writing.

books-1024x683 Writers and History
Study the past, if you would divine the future. Confucius 551-479 BCE

One of the trickiest things about being a writer is being able to write without your personal preferences getting in the way of your subject matter. To write about a subject without any personal bias is impossible, it is what is referred to as “writing objectively”, but you can be clearer in your writing style and avoid writing subjectively — that is, writing purely from your own perspective. The first step is to simply acknowledge that you have this bias and make some effort to reign it in. Admitting you have biases that will make your written work less clear, unless the point of your work is to explain to the reader what your biases are, is the first step to writing in a more convincing way. Consider the observation of historian John Lukacs on two other historians, Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt [and do not worry about the German words he throws in, historians have a tendency to throw in German, French, or Latin terms; it’s just one of “those things”.]:

It is perhaps significant that the limits of objectivity were recognized by Tocqueville and Burckhardt better than by Ranke: unlike the latter, the aristocrat Tocqueville and the patrician Burckhardt admitted and knew many of their personal inclinations and their existing prejudices: and it is perhaps precisely for this reason that they succeeded in overcoming them on occasion. “I began my study of the old régime full of prejudices against the clergy,” Tocqueville wrote, “I ended it full of respect.” (How few of our professional intellectuals would dare to admit such a thing nowadays, let alone put it in a book!) Burckhardt in one of his lectures made a beautiful distinction between Vorliebe and Parteilichkeit, a personal tendency of being attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures, as distinct from mere partisanship; the former was good and proper, the latter wrong. The person of the historian is to determine his work, Burckhardt said. “We are not objective.” “Personal participation is unavoidable.”

John Lukacs
Historical Consciousness (Transaction:2003): 235.

For clarity’s sake, Vorliebe means ‘preference’ or ‘liking something’, whereas Parteilichkeit means ‘partiality’ or ‘bias’. This relates to the general tack of this blog, clear writing, and here the eminent historian is not being clear to the average English reader. The question he had to answer is whether, given the fact the average reader will not understand the German terms, he still wanted to use them anyway? Clearly, he did. In your own writings you will also have to consider the use of technical language, for lack of a better term, and where and when you are willing to use it. But for now, let’s quickly consider what Lukacs observed about writing objectively. That is the important bit!

We take it as a given that we participate in what we write, a la Burckhardt. But here we are presented with two trajectories of participation in writing: one where we are “attracted to, and affected by, certain places, peoples, cultures,” and another where we are partial to a cause or person, or have biases that guide our writing. These historians agree that — I paraphrase and translate — a healthy interest and respect for a subject is a good thing, while writing out of our biases is a bad thing.

Their observations are good ones. Happy writing.

You can find more tips on writing here.