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.


My Favorite Dangler
Posted by June on May 18, 2015


Danglers, as we’ve discussed here before, are modifying phrases that aren’t placed close enough to the noun they’re supposed to be modifying. Like "Walking on the beach, my shoulders got sunburned.” This is considered a dangler because shoulders don’t walk, though the juxtaposition of “walking” and “shoulders” makes it look like they do.

To play it safe, always make sure that the noun nearest to your modifying phrase is the one actually being modified: “Walking down the beach, I got a sunburn on my shoulders.”

Some danglers aren’t a real problem – at least not in terms of reader comprehension. Funny as it was to infer that my shoulders could walk, no one who read that sentence would have taken it that way.

Other danglers can pose a serious problem for comprehension: “Drawing his last breath, Curly laughed as his bullet lodged between Tex’s eyes.” Wait, was Curly dying? Or was it Tex? Maybe both? The reader deserves to know, and it's the writer's job to make it immediately clear.

But still other danglers are just good fun, none more so than the ones that start with “As a child.”

“As a child, Sally’s father used to punish her for her irreverence.”

I picture Sally’s dad not long out of diapers, marching around a bossing a little girl he could not possibly have yet fathered. So, yeah, sometimes danglers are just good fun.


The 'Comprised Of' Crusade
Posted by June on May 11, 2015


In honor of Bryan Henderson, the guy who went into Wikipedia and deleted 47,000 instances of the phrase comprised of, replacing them with composed of or other alternative wording, here’s a refresher about the difference between compose and comprise.

In their main definitions, comprise means to contain or include, while compose means to make up something. So our team comprises 20 players and those players compose the team. If that last one sounds a little odd it’s because compose is often used in the passive: The team is composed of 20 players.

You can see how this gets confusing. Compose and comprise are both standard when the whole thing (the team) is the subject of the sentence: The team comprises. The team is composed of. Pretty easy to combine the two in The team is comprised of.

In Chicago and AP style, that’s an error.  Comprised pretty much never lends itself to this passive formation is comprised of. In the real world, though, it’s allowed. Look up comprise in Merriam-Webster’s and you’ll see it is sometimes a synonym of compose. Merriam-Webster’s even cites the following as an example of its usage: “About 8 percent of our military forces are comprised of women.”

So if you think Henderson’s quest is a little, um, interesting -- I’m with you.


That and Which
Posted by June on May 4, 2015

Here’s everything you need to know about the difference between “that” and “which.”

  1. 1. You don’t need to know anything about the difference between “that” and “which.” Though in Chicago and AP editing styles, there’s an important distinction, it doesn’t really apply outside of professional publishing. Unless you specifically want to comply with those styles, whatever use comes naturally is fine.
  2. If you do want to follow those styles, here’s the difference: “that” is for restrictive clauses and “which” is for nonrestrictive clauses.
  3. Also, if you want to follow those styles, you need to understand the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause, as the name suggests, actually “restricts” a noun. That means it adds specificity. The car that I was driving was blue. Here, the clause “that I was driving” specifies which car I’m talking about. It narrows down what could have been meant by “the car,” which is broader, to “the car that I was driving,” which points more clearly to one specific car. “Which," in these editing styles, is for nonrestrictive clauses. The information introduced by "which" could be lifted right out of the sentence with no loss of specificity and without damaging the sentence structure or meaning. “Which” clauses are set off which commas, making it clearer this is just extra information: The car, which I was driving, was red.  See how the stuff about me driving is inserted as a sort of “by the way”? That makes it clear that you’re already supposed to know which car I’m talking about with“ the car.” You can't do that with a restrictive clause: Any cat that I would adopt must be over one year old. Take out the “that” clause and what are you left with? Nonsense: Any cat must be over one year old. This illustrates how restrictive clauses are, in theory, essential to the sentence’s meaning and the specificity of the noun.