May 25, 2015

Mastering Longer Sentences



Short sentences are a safe bet for every writer. They're clear and pose fewer pitfalls for the writer to get tripped up in her own thoughts. But just because longer sentences often go awry doesn't mean they're necessarily bad. Here's how to handle them well.

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A Reminder About Commas
Posted by June on May 25, 2015

Here’s a reminder some people could probably use: When you have a comma before a year, state, or “Inc.,” you need a comma after it.

Wrong: The picnic will be held on March 14, 2015 on the great lawn.

Right: The picnic will be held on March 14, 2015, on the great lawn.

Wrong: The new complex in Austin, Texas will have a fitness center.

Right: The new complex in Austin, Texas, will have a fitness center.

Wrong: Jameson founded WidgetWiz, Inc. in 1970.

Right: Jameson founded WidgetWiz, Inc., in 1970.

Also right: Jameson founded WidgetWiz Inc. in 1970.

Also right: Jameson founded WidgetWiz in 1970.

In these situations, writers seem to get commas wrong more often than they get them right. People probably figure, and logically so, that the first comma is part of the larger term – almost like part of a name: March 14, 2015.

But in fact the comma is there to set off what’s called “parenthetical information.” That’s when commas work in pairs: Her husband, Tim, will attend the meeting. See how the name is sort of supplemental? Well, that’s how states after cities, years after dates, and Inc. after company names are treated, too. They’re extra info (like this parenthetical, which is actually in parentheses). In fact, these commas are a milder form of parentheses in these cases: Austin (which is in Texas). WidgetWiz (which is incorporated). March 14 (this coming March 14).

Yes, those commas around “Inc.” are optional, as is “Inc.” itself in most publishing styles. But the point is that, if you use a comma before, you need one after, unless of course it’s at the end of a sentence, where the one period is all you need: Jameson founded WidgetWiz Inc.”

And the good news is that often you don't need these bits of parenthetical info anyway. When should you include a state after a city, a year after a specific date, or an “Inc.” after a company name?

The answer, oversimplified, is: only when it’s necessary. News media usually don’t include years for dates in the past 12 months or the next 12 months. So a speech that took place 11 months ago would say the date only, “The president spoke on Nov. 1 to Congress.” That’s because events, in news media, are presumed to mean the most recent occurrence of that date unless specified otherwise: “The president spoke on Nov. 1, 2009, to congress.”

Ditto that for upcoming dates. If it’s happening in next 364 days, no need to state the year: “The concert will take place July 18.” And that’s true even if you’re writing about it in November of 2014 but it doesn’t happen till 2015. That will, in fact, be the next July. So no need to mention the year.

 “Inc.” and other legal designations after company names are less necessary that a lot of writers realize. Sure, the company might like you to write their name exactly as they say. But unless you’re working for them, you don’t have to. The New York Times talks about Coca-Cola and Apple and General Motors without mentioning their incorporation status – or including ugly registered or trademark symbols. If they can, so can you.

As for state names after city names: Have you ever noticed a sentence like this? “The meeting will be held in Austin, Texas, which is a change from previous years in which it was held in Atlanta.” That is, have you noticed how sometimes states are included after city names and other times they’re not? That's because a lot of publications designate certain cities as “standalone cities.” They’re the big ones – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, London, Paris, and so on – chosen because they’re immediately known to most readers with no mention of the state or country needed. These standalone cities pre-designated, for consistency’s sake. You can find a list of them in the AP Stylebook if you want a guideline. And the system works out really well, when you think about it: If you mention Paris without France, readers correctly assume you mean Paris, France, and not Paris, Texas.


June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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