June 2011 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

The Comma Conundrum

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By Sarah Prince, Writing Consultant

In fourth grade math, I started each class period with what my teacher called Mad Minute quizzes. For a grueling 60 seconds, each student stared down a sheet of multiplication problems, which had to be answered as quickly as possible. The student who answered the most multiplication tables correctly received a gold star by his or her name after each class. I never did very well on these quizzes, and at the end of the year, there were still no stars beside my name. From this point forward, I just assumed I was terrible at math. As I progressed to middle school algebra, high school trigonometry, and college calculus, I felt like this initial assumption was confirmed over and over again. On each math quiz or test, I would give up and assume the worst at the first sign of anxiety, frustration, or confusion. I was simply bad at math, and I would never understand.

I bring up my own fraught experience with multiplication facts not to draw some weird parallels between poor math skills and excellent writing skills, but to instead draw another sort of similarity regarding many writers’ beliefs about understanding correct comma usage. As a writing instructor and as a tutor, I have heard countless students say “I just don’t understand commas,” or “I don’t know why I put a comma there.” If I probe a little further, students reveal that there are too many rules and too many exceptions to these rules to really ever get a good handle on where (and where not) to place commas in their writing.

Just like the fourth grade Sarah, who decided she would never understand 8 x 6, these students simply decided they were not capable of understanding commas. So, how about we make a deal? For 10 minutes or so, throw out all of your assumptions about what you think you know and don’t know about correct comma usage. Pretend you are learning about commas for the first time. Open a new brain file, select a blank document, and take down these three important rules, which will steer you in the right direction regarding comma placement:

1. Insert a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.
a. To clarify, a coordinating conjunction is simply a small connecting word. Many grammar nerds (like me) use the acronym FANBOYS to remember these words (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
b. Another point of clarification: An independent clause is simply a part of a sentence, either before or after the coordinating conjunction, that can be read as a complete sentence on its own.

Examples:
I am not a big fan of salad, but I know I should eat leafy greens.
• Because both “I am not a big fan of salad” and “I know I should eat leafy greens” can be read as complete sentences on their own and because they are joined with and (a coordinating conjunction), you DO insert a comma here.

I really like the smell of grapefruit but not the taste.
• Here, only “I really like the smell of grapefruit” can be read as a complete sentence. Writing “not the taste” by itself is a sentence fragment (or what we call a dependent clause), as it does not have a clear subject or verb. So, even though it is still joined by but, a coordinating conjunction, you DO NOT need to insert a comma in this case.

2. Use a serial comma in your academic writing.
a. A serial comma simply means that a comma should separate each element in a series of three or more.

Example:
Before running a marathon, I like to make sure I have my shoes tied tight, my race number on straight, and my hair pulled back in a high pony tail.
• Here, because you have three list elements, you insert a comma to separate each element (even the one that comes after the and).

3. Add a comma to an introductory clause to help readability.
a. An introductory clause, often called an introductory subordinating clause by grammar nerds (again, like me), is a way many writers provide readers with sentence variety and necessary context. These clauses begin with subordinating conjunctions (e.g., after, although, since, while, for, if, unless) and are situated at the beginning of your sentence.
b. Important: Although many believe that a comma is necessary after every introductory clause, some other scholars believe that these commas are only necessary after longer introductory clauses (for instance, those of four words or more). I know this might seem a bit confusing, but the most important takeaway here is to stay consistent in your own writing.

Example:
Although I always wake up early for work, I really would love to sleep in some days.
• Here, your introductory subordinating clause is “Although I always wake up early for work.” However, you still have an independent clause (a part of your sentence that can be read as a complete sentence on its own) following this clause.

Now that you know these three important comma rules, hit that mental save button. Although I promise that no one at the Walden Writing Center will pass out any comma Mad Minutes to test your new knowledge, I challenge you to try implementing these three rules into your academic writing. Hopefully, with just a little practice, you can erase that voice in your head that is telling you correct comma usage is something you‘ll never grasp. And while you are catching up on commas, I’ll be working on 8 x 6 . . . without a calculator.

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When to Use an Author Name in the Body of a Sentence and When to Keep It in the Parenthetical Citation

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By Tim McIndoo, Dissertation Editor

Scholarship requires acknowledgement of all sources of text or ideas not one’s own. APA style calls this an in-text citation. It is done in two ways:

Gardner’s (year) theory of multiple intelligences...
The theory of multiple intelligences... (Gardner, year)

In the first example, the author’s name appears in the body of the sentence; in the second example, it appears in the parenthetical citation. Both are correct. But why choose one over the other?

Which is more important to the sentence or paragraph: the author of the idea or the idea itself? When you are comparing authors’ ideas—which would be common in a discussion of theories, for example—readers need to know which idea belongs to which author. Thus, the author’s name (or names or et al.) should appear in the body of the sentence—that is, in the foreground. But outside of this direct comparison—when the ideas are more important than who presented them—the author’s name should be kept in the citation, that is, in the background.

By keeping ideas in the foreground (and authors in the background), you improve clarity, continuity, and thus comprehension. The sources of ideas (author names) do not get overemphasis. Readers are not forced to keep reading authors’ names, which are secondary to ideas. Relegating authors’ names to parenthetical citations also benefits you as the writer: You don’t have to find artful ways of integrating names into the text.

To recap: All sources of ideas or text not your own must be cited. Broadly speaking, when the author’s name is as important as his or her idea, include the name in the sentence; when the idea is more important than the author’s name, keep the name in the parenthetical citation.*

*See also p. 172 of The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 1995), a highly recommended guide.

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APA: More Than Citations

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By Hillary Wentworth, Writing Consultant

It’s easy to think of APA style as simply a way of crediting the sources you reference in your paper. Yes, the citation part of APA is quite important, as you always want to maintain academic integrity and avoid plagiarism. However, there is much more to APA than parentheses at the end of a sentence. Carve out some time to review chapter 3 in the APA 6th edition manual or the Perrin Pocket Guide, which both deal with writing in a scholarly manner. In these chapters, you’ll find tips on transitions, word choice, tone, and bias, among other topics. Here’s a taste:

• Did you know that using he to indicate both genders is a form of bias? Instead, you will want to use he or she or revise the sentence to avoid the pronoun. You can also easily change a singular noun to a plural, thus allowing for the neutral they. Here’s an example:

Biased: When a teacher introduces a lesson, he should use images to stimulate visual learners.
Unbiased: When teachers introduce a lesson, they should use images to stimulate visual learners.

• Has a tutor or editor ever commented on anthropomorphism in your writing? What a long word, what an interesting concept! Anthropomorphism is the act of giving human qualities to inanimate objects, such as a course paper. Here’s an example:

Incorrect: This paper discusses the importance of social cognitive theory in the development of personality.

Well, a paper can’t really discuss anything because it is lying flat on a desk or embedded in your computer. You as author, however, can discuss, argue, and examine. A revision of this sentence could be as follows:

Correct: In this paper, I will discuss the importance of social cognitive theory in the development of personality.

• Do you find your paragraphs dragging on and on? Are you exceeding the page limit on every assignment? If you are having a hard time getting your point across clearly and quickly, check out what APA calls economy of expression. Sometimes the best way to express an idea is also the simplest. I like to go through my papers after I’ve written a draft and physically cross out extra words with my pen or rephrase especially wordy sections. In this way, I train myself to write succinctly in future papers. Consider this original sentence:

Wordy: There are several ways for researchers to design their studies; those ways are quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods approaches.

And here is the revision:

Better: Researchers can design their studies in several ways: through quantitative, qualitative, or mixed-methods approaches.

This revision just streamlines the material to avoid the passive there are and the repetition of ways.

Now that you’ve had a sampling of APA’s great advice for writers, remember to turn to that book whenever you are feeling lost at your computer screen. It’s not all citations and references, you know.

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Formatting the Reference List: Saving Time With MS Word 2007

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Melanie Brown
By Melanie Brown, Dissertation Editor and Writing Faculty Member

APA-style reference lists pose challenges for so many writers. Each list must be comprehensive (every source cited in your paper, KAM, or dissertation chapter must include a reference list entry so that readers can locate each source). Each list must be accurate (one mistyped number in the DOI can send your readers to the far reaches of the Internet in search of that article; for more on DOIs, see D-O-I & Y-O-U and our website resource on Citing Electronic Sources). Each list must be current (if an online report you cited now shows a Page Not Found message, then you have to delete all mentions of it from your paper). Finally, each list must show correct formatting (authors, publication years, page numbers, and DOIs positioned in just the right places in a double-spaced list with hanging indents).

Given how much time it takes to write a reference list, I can understand why some writers rush through formatting. These writers press the enter key repeatedly until the list “looks” double-spaced. They indent lines by pressing the tab key (or, worse yet, the space bar) like they are sending an urgent message in Morse code on an old telegraph switch. These actions are satisfying because they feel fast: “A few enters, some tabs and spaces, and voila! My list is formatted, just like in the manual!”

Except it isn’t. Inserting spaces manually with the keys and the space bar can give you headaches down the road. What happens when you realize you left a few words out of the article title? When you type those words into the title, the entry becomes longer, and now those careful line breaks, tabs, and spaces you spent so much time inserting are askew. When that happens, you have to spend more time backtracking to delete some of those spaces and reinsert others. Does that approach feel efficient to you? Beware of confusing comfort (“I already know how to do it this way and don’t have time for anything else. My paper is due in 20 minutes!”) with efficiency.

Here are some steps to help you use MS Word 2007 spacing functions to your advantage.

1. Type one of your reference list entries into a new MS Word 2007 document. As you type the entry, do not press enter at the end of each line. Instead, let each line of text wrap to the next line until you have typed the entire entry (author, publication year, title of book/article/what have you, electronic location information). Press enter only to break to your next source.

2. After you have typed all material for an entry, you can format it. Here’s how:

a. Highlight the entire entry with your cursor; right-click your cursor and in the drop-down menu that appears, select Paragraph.

b. In the formatting box that appears, find Indentation; in that area, click on the Special box, and then click on Hanging. This step formats your entry with a hanging indent.

c. In the same box, find Spacing (below Indentation); in that area, make sure that Before and After both show 0 pt. (Type 0 into each box or use the arrows on the right side of each box to change the number shown. This step ensures that spacing before and after each line is correct and consistent.)

d. Also under Spacing, click on the box under Line Spacing and select Double. Now your list will show a hanging indent and be double-spaced. Great job!

3. Now, save this special formatting. That way, you can apply it to other entries in your reference list with the touch of a button. You will not need to follow the steps in Item 2 over and over again. Here’s how:

a. Use your cursor and mouse to highlight the fancy new double-spaced and indented reference list entry you just made; right-click the cursor and select Styles (at the bottom of the drop-down box).

b. In the next drop-down menu that appears, click Save Selection as a New Quick Style; give this style a name—I use RefList—and click OK.

After you follow these steps, type your next entry in the reference list. (Again, press enter only when you are finished typing the entire entry.) Now, here comes the fun part that saves you loads of formatting time:

• Highlight the second entry with your cursor; go to the Home tab at the top of the MS Word screen and find the Styles box in the ribbon above your paper.

• In that Styles box, you should see the style you just created—RefList. Click it, and voila! You have reformatted your second reference list entry with the touch of a button! (If you do not see the new style you just created, simply scroll through the styles boxes there in the ribbon until you do find it. Then click on that new style, and voila!)

Any new process takes a little time to learn. By following these steps, you will format reference lists for papers, KAMs, and capstone drafts efficiently and effectively. If you have any questions, comments, tips, or shortcuts, post them here. I would be glad to hear from you!

Other posts you might like:

10 Tips for Tweaking Your Reference List



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