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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Unnecessary Commas

Every now and then I like to sit back and take stock of what errors are occurring the most frequently for the most number of people in the essays I grade.  Commas end up at the top of the list time and time again.  The creative ways commas are put to unnecessary use in essays are numerous and will no doubt require a series of posts to cover adequately.  This post will concern itself with commas appearing between two (or fewer!) items.

You do NOT need commas to separate items in a list if the list contains only TWO items.

When commas are used to separate items in a list, the list must contain at least three items.  Take the following sentence, for example:

I bought eggs, cheese, and bacon.

When a sentence only contains two items, “and” already separates them; including a comma is just overkill.  The following sentence is an example of this error (i.e., This is what not to do):

I bought eggs, and bacon.

It’s easy to see the error in short simple declarative sentences.  I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t see how unnecessary the comma in the above example is.  In fact, just talking about misusing commas in this way during class generates sighs, much eye-rolling, and a few whispered “duh”s.

Throw in a few extra phrases, though, and suddenly the error is much more difficult to catch. 

The following excerpts come from three different essays about Kate Chopin's short story The Story of an HourAwkward wording aside, look at where the commas appear in each sentence.

The main theme in "The Story of an Hour" is looking into the negative side of the marriage between Louise, and her husband.

Through Louise's actions, and emotions she is clearly joyous about her husband's death. 

Kate Chopin shows this through her choice of words, and actions of Louise.

If you can’t see the errors in the preceding examples, please please please take each sentence apart bit by bit until you do.  The comma is one of the most basic punctuation marks available and a strong understanding of how to use it correctly is taken for granted once you’ve completed high school. 


Photo credit: Debaird(TM)

Monday, May 25, 2009

How Do You Learn to Write?


This is a question I wrestle with every single day.

As the creator of this blog, every time I sit down to write a post I have to believe that the words I put down will make a difference in a reader’s writing.  As a composition instructor, every time I teach class I have to believe that my lessons are useful and will change some of my students’ writing skills for the better. 

I have to believe what I’m doing works; I couldn’t keep doing what I’m doing otherwise. 

You can’t reach excellence, though, unless you’re open to the idea that your way of doing things isn’t the  best way, that somewhere out there is a more effective technique that you just don’t know about yet. 

With that in mind, I’m reading the comments to Rachel Gardner’s post How Do You Learn to Write? and taking notes on what works for some people so I can at least mention them briefly in class, if not incorporate them more fully. 

I encourage you to read her blog post, especially the posted comments.  As informative as the responses are, the 61 comments that are there now make up only a miniscule part of the planet’s population.  If you don’t see your opinion represented in any of the published replies, add your own. 

Only by speaking will you be heard.


Picture credit: Radioflyer007

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Value of Writing Down Memorable Sayings

Ever had a conversation where someone says something that makes you think to yourself “Ooh, I’ve gotta write that down!”?  I just did. 

I was on the phone talking to a good friend about a technologically challenged student he was helping with a project when he said:

She was about as sharp as the corner on a round table.

As soon as our conversation ended, I ran to write that saying down in a little notebook I keep filled with random phrases, ideas, and sayings.  I did so because 1) the sentence amused me, 2) I’d never heard it before and didn’t know if I would come across it again, and 3) I might want to use it in my own writing in the future. 

Hanging on to cute or provocative quotes and sayings is a good habit to get into because you can turn to them for inspiration when you need to kick start a project or even include some in your own writing (with proper attribution, of course).  Take it one step further, though,  and think about the sayings and words of wisdom you hear a little closer to home.  In fact, right IN your home. 

Reared by a Peruvian mother and Romanian father, I didn’t exactly grow up hearing the same adages as my all-American classmates did.  It didn’t hit me until a few years ago what that means.  It means that when I read or hear or see something that that reminds me of an old saying one of my parents would tell my sister and me, I can’t just turn to someone and ask if they know of a saying that starts out “If a river sounds noisy…."

If you don’t yet have a notebook of your own where you jot down memorable sayings, consider getting one.   My twin swears by the Moleskin brand notebooks, but you don’t have to invest in something that expensive.  I myself just carry around one of those small cheapo spiral notebooks that you can pick up from Walgreens.  Don’t feel bound to pen and paper if you prefer keeping all your information on a computer; it doesn’t matter where you keep those sayings you find interesting, thought-provoking, amusing, and memorable, just that you do keep them.

Photo credit: Dvortygirl

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 The Free Microsoft Office Alternative

Last week I was appalled to find out that one of my students has been typing up all of his essays on Windows Notepad at home, then hopping on a school computer to copy and paste his work into Microsoft Word so he could format it.

I wasn’t taken aback at the thought of someone using Notepad to write.  It’s actually quite a useful little fuss-free program that’s lack of formatting options allows you to concentrate completely on the meaning of the words you’re writing, instead of what they look like. 

No, what appalled me was the fact that someone was using it because he thought there were no other options. He was actually planning on doling out the couple hundred bucks it costs to purchase Microsoft Office once he saved up enough for it.

No! No, no, no! Put your money away and save it for more important things.  The internet is full of wonderful, FREE programs that will do everything (and sometimes more!) that any software can that you purchase at Fry’s or Best Buy or Microcenter or CompUSA or … (you get the point). 

Buying an expensive program when a perfectly good free alternative exists is just poor financial decision making, especially when we’re in the middle of an economic recession. 


OpenOffice is a free alternative to the entire Microsoft Office Suite. You can download OpenOffice as a bundle of programs that include:

  • Writer
  • Calc
  • Impress
  • Draw
  • Base

As a composition instructor, I’m mainly interested in getting the word out about Writer, a replacement for Microsoft Word.  OpenOffice includes so much more than just a word processor, though.  Calc is basically a replacement for Excel, Impress for PowerPoint, Draw for Photoshop, and Base for Microsoft Works Database. 

Go to Why for more information about each program. 

If you do decide to use OpenOffice Writer for your word processing needs, I do have a bit of advice for you: save your documents as Microsoft Word compatible files.  Do this by selecting “Save As” when it’s time to save your file, then scrolling through the list of available options until you find “Microsoft Word 2003.” 

By default, OpenOffice saves documents as .odt files, which can only be opened by OpenOffice.  By saving your files as Word compatible files, you’ll be making your life much easier by making it possible to open your files using other word processing programs.  

There are, of course, other alternatives to OpenOffice.  I’ll mention them later in future posts.  In the meantime, happy word processing!


Photo credit: Andrew Abogado

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One More Week....

This image reminds me very much of how I felt when I saw that one student had labeled his Works Cited page "Works Sighted."

I'm just quickly dropping by to let you, my loyal (and very appreciated) readers, that I haven't abandoned you. Life has been hectic this past week and promises to remain that way for this week as well.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for bearing with me while I frantically work to get papers graded. Just one more week of final exams and then I'll be back, feeling rejuvenated and more devoted to the blog than ever!

Photo credit: Programwitch