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How to punctuate more sentences

How to punctuate more sentences
Hand Writing

Here are a few more guidelines for punctuating sentences, offered in response to comments on my How to punctuate a sentence post.

Semi-colons
A reader asked when it’s appropriate to join sentences with a semi-colon. The semi-colon is a good choice when sentences are clearly related, when they seem to go together, when a period would create an overly emphatic stop between sentences. Alas, there’s no rule to determine whether sentences are related in a way that makes a semi-colon a good choice. Making this decision seems to me a matter of acquired intuition.

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The presence of a connecting word or phrase (such as nevertheless, therefore, thus, even so, in contrast) is a good sign that you’re in semi-colon territory. But longish sentences, even if they’re clearly related, are likely to be easier for a reader to take in if they’re separated by a period.

One caution: it’s easy to overuse the semi-colon. As an undergraduate, I often used semi-colons indiscriminately; I joined sentences together in long, unwieldy chains; my excitement about tying ideas together carried me away; as you can see in this example, the result is not reader-friendly.

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Horst Grundkenfelder’s comment added a helpful detail about semi-colon use: when one or more commas appear within items in a series, semi-colons should separate the items. Monty Python makes it easy to illustrate this point:

The menu offered limited choices: egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg and Spam; egg, bacon, and Spam; and egg, bacon, sausage, and Spam.

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Dashes
Two readers asked about the dash. It’s a very useful element of punctuation, as it allows for greater condensation in the presentation of ideas. The dash is appropriate in setting off an element that strongly interrupts the movement of a sentence. For instance:

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman — the one oblique and elliptical, the other expansive and declamatory — might be said to have invented modern American poetry.
Three instruments — clarinet, trumpet, and muted trombone — create the unusual tone colors of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.”

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Commas
My examples with items in a series (“wine, women, and song”) all included a comma before and, the so-called serial comma or Oxford comma. I’m aware of course that opinions differ on that final comma’s necessity. Keeping that comma seems to me the better choice, simplifying, in one small way, the problems of punctuation. If you always put the comma in, you avoid problems with ambiguous or tricky sentences in which the comma’s absence might blur the meaning of your words.

Wikipedia has a lengthy article on the serial comma, giving arguments for and against. And Shaine Mata, who, like me, likes the serial comma, has invented some wonderful examples to argue for its use: A Lesson on Commas in a Series.

The most important thing to remember about punctuation: it’s a matter of conventions, shared agreements that help bring clarity to written communication. If you don’t agree this sentence unpunctuated difficult to read can serve as a last attempt to persuade. If you do agree, that last sentence — unpunctuated, difficult to read — can serve to confirm what you already understand.

Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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