01.10.2013 Fundamental Comma Rules, Part One 10

Many people find the comma to be the most difficult piece of punctuation to master. There are so many rules governing its usage, and many of those rules are somewhat fluid, allowing for writer preference. And sometimes comma rules are deliberately ignored in favor of aesthetics and readability. If you struggle with comma confusion, you can start by focusing a few of the fundamentals. Today I’ll discuss commas and coordinating conjunctions. Hold on to your hats!

The rule: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction linking two independent clauses.

Ack, what does all that mean? Let’s break it down.

When you think “coordinating conjunction,” think FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. They’re connectors.

When you think “independent clause,” think “complete sentence”—a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought.

Example: I went to bed early. “I” is the subject, and “went” is the verb.

Example: My partner’s horrible breath kept me awake all night. “Breath” is the subject, and “kept” is the verb.

Now suppose you wanted to combine those two sentences into one. You’d choose the appropriate conjunction, place a comma before it, and tuck that between the clauses. So:

I went to bed early, but my partner’s horrible breath kept me awake all night.

Here are a few more examples:

I’d like to go to yoga class, but I’m feeling a little gassy.

I’m allergic to salmon, so I’d better not order the seafood special.

Office Cat is diabetic, and he follows a special diet.

Pretty straightforward, right? It is, generally, but you should also remember that some of these conjunctions don’t always act as conjunctions. Take “so,” for example. It can also be an adverb, in which case you would not apply this rule.

Example: I have so much to say about commas.

The same is true for “yet”; when used as an adverb, this rule doesn’t apply.

Example: I have yet to understand the physics behind the Ancient Alien guy’s hair.

Also remember that several of these conjunctions are used to join words and phrases too, not just independent clauses. You wouldn’t use a comma when they’re joining things other than independent clauses.

Example: I want ketchup and mustard on this cheese dog.

Example: I want neither ketchup nor mustard on this cheese dog.

Woo! Now we’re having fun. Want to test yourself? Determine where the commas go in the following sentences:

I bought a gift for you and I hope you like it.

It was expensive so I hope you express appropriate gratitude and treasure it forever.

Let’s go outside so you can open it.

You can try to guess what it is but I bet you can’t.

Yup, it’s a dirigible! Buckle up and let’s go for a ride.

Next up: Commas in a direct address. Yeehaw, y’all!

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10.19.2012 Why Grammar is Important to Your Business2

In my daily travels through the Internet, I’ve noticed a significant number of businesses with an array of grammatical errors and typos on their pages, some more prevalent than others. I usually let them know by sending a friendly email. I’m not really a grammar snob, and I hope I don’t come across as one in these communications. But for whatever reason, I almost never hear back from these companies, and I almost never see any corrections on their sites. This is true for tiny businesses all the way up to big-name corporations. It’s fine if they don’t want to take the time to write back to me, but to just leave those errors on there? What gives?

I’ve discovered in my years of teaching and writing that many, many people don’t care one bit about grammar. I do agree that we need to allow language to change, and that sometimes, a grammatically incorrect structure is actually preferable to the “right” one. (An example is Apple’s slogan “Think Different,” which is much snappier than the technically correct “Think Differently.”) At the same time, I can’t think of any circumstances where it’s a good business choice to put “Serveing customer’s for 20 yrs” on your homepage.

Businesses that leave glaring errors on their websites must believe that customers share the view that grammar is unimportant. Lots of customers probably do share that view. What about the ones who don’t, though? For these customers (and there are many of them, I assure you), numerous errors in basic grammar will turn them off and make them question your credibility. Bad grammar leads to lower sales, plain and simple.

Charles Duncombe, an online entrepreneur who runs several websites out of the UK, contends that mistakes in grammar and spelling add up to millions in lost revenue across online businesses. In a convincing example, he identifies one online company that doubled its revenue per visitor after correcting an error on the site (1). Yes, doubled!

If your customers include women, it’s even more important to ensure your text is error-free. Award-winning marketing expert Mary Lou Quinlan (called “the Oprah of Madison Avenue” by The Wall Street Journal), says that women “take notice of errors. Bad grammar or a mistake on an order form creates lasting impressions for female buyers…the smallest error can cause them to look for a new place to shop or a new person to buy their goods from" (2). Quinlan suggests running all of your business communications past a professional proofreader, from sales letters to marketing materials to web content.

The bottom line is, spelling and grammar do matter to many of your customers. If you’re not a grammar expert, no worries; you’re an expert at all those other things that make your business successful. Ask someone to read through your text to correct any mistakes, and watch your revenue grow!

1. Coughlan, Sean. “Spelling Mistakes ‘Cost Millions’ in Online Sales.” BBC News.
2. Cohen, Andy. "What Women Want." Successful Promotions (May/June 2009): 46-48.

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10.15.2012 Why Grammar is Important0

Let’s face it—grammar can be a drag. Just when you think you’ve mastered a rule, here come four or five exceptions to throw you off all over again. Guidelines seem arbitrary, rules seem inconsistent, and the whole endeavor seems vaguely pretentious.

Nonetheless, it matters. We have agreed as a society that writing and speaking a certain way signifies a level of intelligence and professionalism. People make judgments about us based on our command of the language and its rules. They decide whether to date us, hire us, take us seriously, work with us, and so on.

Is this fair? Not really. Just because someone is rusty on a few grammar rules most certainly does not mean he’s incompetent or unintelligent. A person who makes a minor error on a cover letter might still be the best person for the job, all things considered. But he probably won’t get it.

Whether we like it or not, correct grammar and clear writing are issues of respect. If we want to present ourselves as credible, professional, and competent, we need to demonstrate an awareness of the rules governing communication. Even more important, correct grammar helps us deliver our message with clarity, as opposed to the confusion that can come from improperly structured, badly punctuated sentences.

This doesn’t mean you need to be an overly-formal grammar robot. Prose can be grammatically correct, lively, casual, and engaging all at the same time. You can still write in a way that reflects your personality or your company’s ethos; this isn’t a question of tone. It’s about conveying yourself with authority and precision in order to inspire confidence in your reader.

You don’t need to be perfect. Even the most vigilant grammarian might make a mistake or overlook a typo now and then. But you do need to make an effort to express yourself in a way that demonstrates your professionalism, reflects your knowledge, and shows respect for your audience.

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10.05.2012 A Ridiculously Easy Way to Raise Your Grades0

You might view your college professor as little more than a droning voice coming from the general direction of the podium, and you might think your professor views you as just another face in the crowd. This may be true in huge lecture settings. But when it comes to smaller classes, you’d better believe that your professor forms some opinions about you, and it’s to your benefit to do what you can to make those opinions positive, especially in a class where there’s a higher degree of subjectivity to the grading.

You can tell within one or two class periods, usually, whether you’re going to like the class, right? Similarly, professors can generally tell within the first few weeks which students are likely to do well, which are going to get by with a gentleman’s C, and which are going to fail spectacularly. I’m not always right about this, and I keep an open mind, because people can surprise you. But my beginning-of-the-semester hunches generally play out as expected. My colleagues agree: we can predict your overall success in the class two or three weeks in, without having many, if any, assignments to go on.

We make these judgments based largely on the way you present yourself in class. It’s not that we end up grading you badly because you act like a jerk in class; most professors make a sincere effort to keep negative personal feelings out of grading. It’s that acting like a jerk in class is strongly correlated with performing badly overall. Very rarely do I come across a student who behaves like a first-rate jackhole but still turns in excellent work. No, the first-rate jackholes, who wander in disruptively late and spend class time playing with their cell phones, one bud firmly in-ear, exhaling frequent sighs of boredom, packing up their things seven minutes before the hour, tapping their pencil loudly and rapidly on the desk, eating chips and salsa, showing classmates the hilarious doodles in their notebooks—these people don’t usually do too well overall. And if a student like this has a 69 at the end of the semester, I’m not bumping it up to a 70.

Guess what, though? If a student has been attentive and respectful in class, has indicated interest in the material, has attended regularly, has maybe visited me in office hours once or twice, has demonstrated some effort to improve, and has generally been a decent human being, I’m likely to tack on a few points, say, raising a 78 to an 80. Many professors have a “participation and demeanor” component to their grading to allow for such flexibility, but truth be told, even among professors who don’t, many are likely to toss a few extra points your way if you’ve portrayed yourself as a serious student.

This seems ridiculously obvious, doesn’t it? Even so, year after year, I encounter students whose rude behavior knows no bounds. Even if you don’t care about the material one bit, fake it. Grades will rise. Peace will reign.

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09.24.2012 Am I Supposed to Use “Can Not” or “Cannot”?0

Many people believe that there are esoteric differences between “can not” and “cannot,” and that you must choose the appropriate form depending on the specific sentence you’re constructing. The truth is, “can not” and “cannot” mean exactly the same thing, and you are free to choose whichever you prefer.

Let’s take a look at the dictionary definitions of “cannot.” The American Heritage College Dictionary defines “cannot” as “the negative form of can,” defines it as “a form of can not,” and Merriam-Webster defines it straightforwardly as “can not.” The big daddy of dictionaries, the OED, agrees, defining “cannot” as “the ordinary modern way of writing can not.”

So bottom line, despite the squiggly line that appears in your document when you type “can not,” both forms are correct. It is true that “cannot,” written as one word, is the more commonly used form, so that would be the option to choose unless you have a powerful preference to “can not” for whatever reason. In general, “can not” is preferable in two situations: the first is when you are using a construction such as “not only,” as in, “You can not only read the newspaper, but also use it as a birdcage liner.” The second is when you want to provide emphasis, as in, “You can not possibly be serious.”

Isn’t it great having options? Just remember to be consistent, whichever form you choose.

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09.18.2012 10 Tips for Writing Successful Business Plans1

Having an effective business plan is critical to securing financing. The following tips will help you create a successful business plan.

1. Develop an Outline

Business plans vary in length and format, but all should include the following sections:
• Executive Summary
• Company Description
• Product or Service Description
• Market Analysis
• Marketing and Sales Strategy
• Operational Plan
• Management Team
• Financial Analysis

Some plans subdivide certain topics. For example, many business plans have separate headings for Marketing Strategy and Sales Strategy or use Industry Analysis, Target Market, and Competitive Analysis rather than just Market Analysis.

2. Write a Good Executive Summary

The Executive Summary provides an opportunity to capture the reader’s interest, so it is important to do a good job with this section. Include a concise description of your company and its mission, vision, competitive advantages, and achievements, as well as information about your product or service and why people will want to buy it. Ideally, this section should be about 1-2 pages in length and focused on the elements of your business most likely to intrigue and impress your audience.

3. Go Beyond Simple Product, Service, and Company Descriptions

When describing your company, be sure to emphasize its competitive advantages, the types of customers it will serve, and what differentiates it from competing businesses. When describing your products or services, provide information about how they will be produced and delivered and why consumers will want to buy them. What makes your product or service unique? How does it meet an unfilled need in the marketplace?

4. Research the Market

Having a good market analysis is critical to the effectiveness of your business plan. This section should include:

• Information on consumer segments as well as market demand, trends, and growth
• An industry analysis that includes general participants, growth rate, intensity of competition, and other relevant factors
• Information about your company’s primary competitors, including their strengths and weaknesses
• A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of your proposed business.

Use good sources for your research, cite them properly, and don’t overestimate your own strengths and opportunities and underestimate those of your competitors – this will make you appear less credible to potential investors.

5. Provide a Detailed Strategy and Operational Plan

What is your value proposition? What gives your company a competitive edge? How will you promote your product or service? How will you continue to attract customers? What sales channels will you use? How will you get your products or services to your customers? What is your pricing strategy? Have you formed any strategic alliances? How will you operate on a day-to-day basis (hours of operation, suppliers, facility and technology requirements, information systems). How will you grow your business over time? You should answer all of these questions in this section. Include short-term goals as well as a five-year plan for growth that lists anticipated achievement milestones.

6. Include Information About Your E-Business Approach

Information technology is critical to the success of modern businesses. Your e-business strategy can be included in the Marketing and Sales Strategy section or described in a separate section of your business plan. It should cover the use of Internet-based platforms for marketing, management, cost reduction, and other aspects of your business, as well as how you will develop your website and support online sales.

7. Incorporate a Comprehensive Overview of Staffing and Management

Provide biographies of your management team, including the skills and experience they bring to your company, as well as general staffing information. This section should describe how you will recruit, train, and retain the workers you need. Include job descriptions and essential skills, and provide an organizational chart of staffing positions. Business consultants, advisors, or mentors can also be included in this section.

8. Provide a Detailed Financial Analysis

The Financial Analysis section typically includes a number of components, such as Important Assumptions, Key Financial Indicators, Break-Even Analysis, Projected Profit and Loss, Projected Cash Flow, Projected Balance Sheet, and Business Ratios. It should, at the very least, include Cash Flow Statements, a Profit and Loss Forecast, and a Sales Forecast.

9. Emphasize Environmental Friendliness and/or Social Responsibility

Sustainability and giving back to local communities have become vital to the success of modern companies. Throughout the plan, be sure to incorporate references to the ways in which your product, service, or company benefits the local community or the environment.

10. Hire a Professional Editor

Business plans with spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and inconsistent formatting give the impression that you are unprofessional and careless. It is also important to use short, clear sentences and avoid buzzwords. Even those who have a talent for writing and editing tend to lack objectivity when looking at their own work. A professionally edited business plan is far more impressive to potential investors.

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08.19.2012 Oooooooh, Modifiers!0

A modifier is a word or a group of words that affects the meaning of another part of the sentence. They can describe, limit, qualify, and provide additional information. When the modifier is in the right spot, the sentence effectively and correctly communicates the writer’s intended meaning. When it’s in the wrong spot, confusion often abounds. Let’s have an example, courtesy of Maroon 5 and their song “Payphone.” (Hey, that should be two words, not one, and I’m sure Adam Levine has a cellie.) In any case, as he laments the end of his relationship, he sings, “But even the sun sets in paradise.”

So what’s the problem? It’s with the word “even,” which is acting as a modifier here. Placed where it is, it makes the sentence mean, “All kinds of things set in paradise, including the sun.” But that doesn’t make any sense. What other things might be setting in paradise? Jello, maybe?

To make the lyric clear and correct, we need to move the modifier: “But the sun sets even in paradise.” There. See the difference? Now the sentence means, “The sun sets in the Midwest, in Europe, in India, all over the world, even paradise, where you might expect the sun to shine around the clock, being paradise and all.” In this revised sentence, the setting sun is a metaphor for the end of the relationship, which is of course what the songwriters intended with this lyric in the first place.

Let’s look at another example to drive home the point. We’ll start with the sentence “Fritz ate the donut” and add the modifier “only” in various places in the sentence; you’ll see how the meaning changes:

Only Fritz ate the donut. (No one else ate it.)
Fritz only ate the donut. (He didn’t do anything else to it.)
Fritz ate only the donut. (He didn’t eat anything else.)
Fritz ate the only donut. (There were no other donuts. Fritz, that selfish bastard, ate the lone donut.)

This is really just the tip of the modifier iceberg. For now, just remember that the modifier should be placed right next to whatever it is supposed to be modifying. And Adam Levine should be placed right next to me.

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07.18.2012 My Kingdom for an Indeterminate Singular Pronoun0

Everyone needs to pick up their toys.

If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anybody so crazy about their cat.

When somebody has a question, they should raise their hand.

Guess what? All these sentences are technically grammatically incorrect according to Standard American English. Can you spot the problem? It’s that the words “everyone,” “anyone,” “anybody,” and “somebody” are singular, and the pronouns used in each sentence are all plural. There’s so much to be frustrated about here, we don’t even know where to begin.

These messed-up singular subjects are as good a place as any to start. Words like “everyone” and “everybody” certainly sound plural, don’t they? Too bad for us, but they’re not. It’s easier to understand this if you insert the word “single,” making them “every single one” and “every single body.” You can do the same for the others: “any single one,” “any single body,” and so on, though these are easier to recognize as singular in the first place, since they don’t seem to be referring to large numbers of people.

So, now that you accept these subjects as singular, you understand that they need singular, not plural, pronouns to refer to them. “They,” “their,” and “them” are plural, which makes the sentences incorrect. Which pronouns should we use instead, then? Our only choice, if we want to retain the original sentence structure, is to use the clunky and overly-formal sounding “he or she” or appropriate variation:

Everyone needs to pick up his or her toys.

If anyone calls, tell him or her I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anyone so crazy about his or her cat.

When somebody has a question, he or she should raise his or her hand.

Of course, these “correct” sentences are cringe-worthy, especially that last one. To avoid sounding like a Victorian schoolmarm, you could rewrite the sentences to dispose of the problem altogether. This involves changing the subject to one that’s plural:

All the kids need to pick up their toys.

If people call, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve seen folks who are crazy about their cats, but this takes the cake.

When students have questions, they should raise their hands.

So that fixes the problem and satisfies grammar sticklers. However, what your English teacher probably didn’t tell you is that the use of singular “they” has a long and respectable history, dating from the 14th century and used by Jane Austen and Chaucer, among many other celebrated writers. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that grammarians, following Latin grammar rules, decided to frown upon it. And so we are stuck with an arbitrary rule forbidding the use of singular “they.” We would encourage you to go ahead and use singular “they,” “their” and “them” all you want, but you may run into a difficult grader or a cranky recipient of your business memo. Suddenly, you’re viewed as incompetent, in the area of grammar, anyway. So to be safe, we advise sticking to the rule in your writing and professional communication, and reserving singular “they” for everyday conversation and informal writing.

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07.03.2012 The Basics of Academic Writing, Part Four1

We’re back from an excellent vacation in the northeast. Office Cat now wants to relocate to Boston. We’re in the triple digits here at home, and his coat is luxurious but unforgiving in this heat.

Today we carry on with our academic writing series. We’ve described how to summarize and evaluate; now it’s time to explain that most dreaded of terms—analysis. Students have an automatic groan reflex triggered by this word and any of its variations, but really, it’s not that bad. Like anything else, you just have to understand and practice.

When you analyze something, you’re breaking it down into its distinct parts in order to more fully understand it as a whole. Like summary and evaluation, this is something we do every day. Let’s say you just ate a ham sandwich. You’re marveling at the amazing deliciousness of this ham sandwich. You seriously can’t get over how good this sandwich is, and you want to know *why* it’s so good. To determine the answer, analyze the sandwich. Break it down into its parts and see how those parts relate to each other.

After speaking with the owner of the deli, you learn that the bread is fresh, baked just this morning by artisan bakers. The ham is hickory-smoked, pasture-raised Surryano. The mustard is handmade in batches using heirloom seeds.

This is analysis. You’re investigating each element of the sandwich in order to determine how they come together successfully. It’s the same basic process for academic analysis. If your assignment is to analyze “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, you’ll break it down into its parts, in this case, the elements of fiction. So, you can choose to discuss plot, tone, characterization, setting, and so on, and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the story works as a whole.

It’s important to remember that analysis isn’t just the “what,” it’s the “why.” It’s not enough to describe the components of the sandwich; you have to explain why they complement each other and combine to produce such awe-inspiring yum. You could say that the sweet nuttiness of the bread contrasts nicely with the delicate saltiness of the ham, or that the crisp freshness of the lettuce provides a nice textural surprise to the whole. For the story, you could say that carnival setting presents a backdrop against which the unexpected could happen, or that the description of the underground catacombs mirrors the darkness in the narrator’s heart. For analysis, you always want to ask yourself, What are the features of X? How does part (a) relate to part (b)? What are the connections among elements?

Next up, synthesis! Hang tight, the wait shouldn’t be too long.

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