Tag Archives: Grammar

Sentence clauses and where to put the comma. With gratuitous nudity.

Warning: The naked monster in this picture has nothing to do with the content below and is therefore gratuitous.

Warning: The naked monster in this picture has nothing to do with the content below and is therefore gratuitous.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to think up an enticing blog post title when your topic is sentence clauses? That’s about as unsexy a thing as can be discussed. My other options were Full Frontal Commas and When Punctuation Marks Hook Up, but I ultimately decided “sentences clauses” and “comma” both belonged because the union of those two language elements is what we’re talking about today.

I’m willing to bet that when writers express worry about their punctuation skills, their chief grief is commas. Like, when to use one and where to put it (by the way, if you block out the rest of this post, you have to admit what I just wrote could be sexy). Today I shall discuss one aspect of comma use: when they are required to separate sentence clauses and when they are not.

The guidelines are pretty simple. If you have a dependent clause, you don’t need a comma, and if you have an independent clause, you do need a comma. Important note: Dependent and independent clauses are typically separated by “and” or “but.”

But sometimes, to even the most experienced writer, grammar talk sounds like bleeeeeaaaaaaahhhhhhh grldlugnk fzzznuh. Therefore, I shall provide examples.

A sentence with a dependent clause:

Im-Ho-Tep, pre bling

Im-Ho-Tep, pre bling

Im-Ho-Tep was awakened from his ancient slumber and began killing the archeologists who disturbed his tomb.

Two things happened in that sentence. Im-Ho-Tep woke up, and he began killing archeologists. Each thing is described by a clause (as well as separated by “and”). I made the second clause dependent (without a comma) because the two things are connected. He was awakened and killed the people who woke him up, kind of like I wanted to kill the garbage truck that woke me up this morning at 5:45.

By technical definition, the second clause is dependent because it depends on the first half of the sentence for meaning. Began killing the archeologists who disturbed his tomb does not have enough information to be a sentence. It’s missing a subject.

Here’s one with an independent clause:

Im-Ho-Tep awoke from his ancient slumber, and he quickly decided to ditch the yellowed wrapping in favor of Versace and some nice bling.

I made the second half an independent clause because, while the subject (Im-Ho-Tep) does not change, the two actions aren’t directly related. By technical definition, the second clause is independent because it stands alone as a complete thought or idea. He quickly decided to ditch the yellowed wrapping in favor of Versace and some nice bling works as a sentence.

To recap: If your second clause depends on the first to make sense, you do not need a comma because the thoughts are not separate. If your second clause stands alone from your first clause as a functionally independent statement, you do need a comma. More examples follow…


Countess Dracula climbed out of her coffin and ventured into the night in search of human blood.

Two ideas are expressed and are separated by “and,” but ventured into the dark night in search of human blood is incomplete by itself.


Countess Dracula gazed longingly into the eyes of her human beverage container, and he gave it up to her after deciding there were far worse ways to die.

In this case, he gave it up to her after deciding there were far worse ways to die could be a sentence by itself, so you need a comma.

OK. It got a teeny bit sexy at the end.

OK. It got a teeny bit sexy near the end.

Dependent (with “but”):

Larry was bitten by a werewolf but did not transform into one until the night of the next full moon.

Did not transform into one until the night of the next full moon is not a complete sentence. No comma.

Independent (with “but”):

Larry became a drooling, uncontrollable savage last night, but that happens every weekend at his frat house.

That happens every weekend at his frat house is a complete sentence. Yes comma.

This is hardly a comprehensive explanation of when to use commas and when not to when composing a two-clause sentence, but I think the other scenarios are more intuitive.

Thoughts, comments, monetary donations are welcome below.


Guest Post: Punctuation Haiku

Not Kevin Brennan

Not Kevin Brennan

Writer and blogger Kevin Brennan really hates redundant quote marks following a certain word. So much so that he wrote haiku about it. Who am I to stand in the way of artistic expression? Here you go, courtesy of Mr. Brennan:

When using so-called,
Do me a favor, doofus:
No quotation marks!

So-called: efficient.
For the word that follows it
No quotes are needed!

It bugs me to see,
When someone uses so-called,
Subsequent quote marks.

Help Prevent Hyphen Abuse


No one, aside from weirdos, wants to read some boring post about grammar and punctuation. I’m not an English teacher, and I’m not in the business of excerpting textbooks. So let us keep this post on hyphens to one point. Ready?

This is a hyphen:  –

This is an adverb:  quickly

This is the aforementioned point of this post: When modifying a noun with an adverb, omit the hyphen. The “ly” replaces it.

I know; writers hate adverbs and want them to suffer. But those poor, maligned parts of speech are in charge when nouns must be modified, no matter how beautiful the hyphen that comes traipsing along. See the action-packed example that appears after this paragraph break.

Wrong: The quickly-flowing lava raced down the volcano’s slope, enveloping the ancient monster, Rodan, before the beast could fly away.

Right: The quickly flowing lava raced down the volcano’s slope, enveloping the ancient monster, Rodan, before the beast could fly away.

When modifying a noun without an adverb, use a hyphen.

Right: The flesh-eating monster, Rodan, is impervious to all things. Except lava.

That is all for today. Other than, “Beware of Rodan.”


Little known fact: John Lennon was singing about punctuation abuse in this song. 100% of the proceeds from this YouTube video go toward improving the quality of life for hyphens. If I were the Beatles, though, I’d probably set aside $40 to buy a microphone stand so Paul and George don’t have to share.


Stop! In the Name of Grammar!

half man half womanIt’s hard to decide which common grammar mistake is the most irritating, but the ubiquitous practice of referring to a single person as “they” is a strong contender.

Professional writers who should know better make this mistake all the time, though I doubt it is always a mistake. That is, in some misguided attempt to be politically correct and avoid gender specificity, some writers would rather sound foolish than offend some indescribable, shadowy entity that objects to differentiating between men and women.


“If an employee misses work more than twice in one calendar year without notifying management, they will be terminated”

“Each participant in the study will be injected with radioactive cockroach blood, after which they will be expected to keep notes of any changes in behavior or number of limbs.”

“If you love someone, set them free.”

“Who is your favorite blogger? I suggest you mail them a check for $100.”

Sure, you can rewrite the first clause in some instances so that the second clause becomes acceptable. For example, the first item above becomes, “Employees who miss work more than twice in one calendar year without notifying management will be terminated.”

But what to do in the case of examples 3 and 4? Simple: Choose a gender! Really. It’s ok. If a writer does not choose a gender in these scenarios, they sound foolish, don’t they?

Seriously, if you love someone, give him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. After the participant in the radioactive-cockroach study develops an exoskeleton and feelers, keep her away from bug spray. Every writer who reads this post should double check his work for gender-avoidance errors, if he hasn’t already. Everyone who buys a gourmet cupcake today should remember her old pal Eric and get a second one for him. He prefers mint chocolate chip, but anything chocolaty will do.

Three rules in love and life:

  1. Don’t take people you care about for granted.
  2. Don’t drive on the sidewalk.
  3. Stop writing “they” and “their” when you are talking about one person.


I am aware that this is a photograph of The Marvelettes, not their Motown label mates The Supremes, from whom I paraphrased today’s post title. You see, I‘ve long been irked that the following image does not appear in online searches, as it’s one of my favorites. So, in a fit of exasperation and declaring, “If you don’t do it yourself, it won’t get done,” I took apart the CD case, removed the rear insert, scanned it, and loaded the image here. That’s right. For the first time anywhere on the internet, I present this photograph of The Marvelettes, my favorite Motown act. Get on it, Google Image Search:

The Marvelettes (from top): Katherine Anderson, Gladys Horton, and Wanda Young

The Marvelettes (from top): Katherine Anderson, Gladys Horton, and Wanda Young

Less vs. Fewer

Poor Fewer. Its cousin, Less, is a self-centered attention hog who thinks nothing of taking Fewer’s place in a sentence, even when it is not invited and has no right to be there.

You have heard and read things similar to these examples, I’m sure. They should all say fewer:

Less people showed up than I expected.


The new parking lot holds less cars than the old one.


There are less strippers at this dive than they promised on the website!


People of Earth… Your choice is simple. Learn to the proper use of these terms. Or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We will be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you!

day 2

OK, perhaps that was a bit harsh. Maybe some of you would prefer a refresher before we bust out the Death Star. Here’s the deal:

Fewer is for things you can count. Cars, people, cockroaches, numbers of characters played by Tyler Perry or Mike Myers in a single film.

Less if for things that come in degrees or mass. The general term money, destruction, flavor, clothing (less clothing can be good or bad, depending on who’s under it).

The gift I’m about to offer isn’t useful in all cases (such as plural nouns that don’t change form, like deer), but the general concept of this mnemonic device I’ve created should nonetheless be helpful: It’s Less without an S.

Correct examples of Fewer…

1. Fewer monsters appeared in Terror of MechaGodzilla than in its immediate predecessor, Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, which disappointed the mature adult male who has both films on DVD.*

*Not really. He likes them both the same.

2. Pete Townsend typically has fewer intact guitar strings at the end of the concert than he does at the beginning.

3. There were fewer people alive in Argos after Zeus released the Kraken to attack the city. Damn. That guy doesn’t [EXPLETIVE DELETED] around!

4. I had fewer singles in my wallet after my visit to Leather and Lace in Newark.

Correct examples of Less…

1. The Millennium Falcon had less damage than one would expect after it flew through an asteroid field.

2. Now that I’ve been transferred to maximum security, I have less time for conjugal visits. Rats. Meanwhile, Mrs. B has all the time in the world for non-conjugal visits.

3. Any woman will tell you. Frank Hammer, the 6’4” decathlete, concert pianist, and sometime male model is far less of a man than 5’3”Archibald Crinkle is with both hands tied behind his back and his underwear pulled up over his head. Sure, Archie has a weak chin, a high-pitched voice, an unassertive demeanor, and blotchy skin, but, darn it, he’s nice.

4. I have much less patience by the time I’m trying to come up with my eighth overall example on a blog post. In fact, sometimes I just want to stop in the mid


Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a relevant song for this post, so I’m just going to share this unheralded mid-1960s classic, I Want to Be With You, by the late, awesome Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne Warwick, niece of Cissy Houston, and cousin of Whitney. Can you fathom the singing DNA in this family?

Tell me if Dee Dee’s voice isn’t a mocha latte with whipped crème and a teaspoon of sugar!