StoryStudio Chicago Words for WorkStoryStudio Chicago Words for Work
Use commas, they matter

by Jill Pollack

I once had a student who said she wasn’t allowed to use semicolons; her supervisor didn’t like them.

Grammar and punctuation were lost on me during high school so my mother, trying to be helpful, told me to just insert a comma “every couple inches.”

These days, while I would never put “Grammarian” on my business card, I am on intimate terms with pronouns, subject-verb agreements, compound phrases, and most passionately, the Oxford Comma. In fact, I love these elements of language and the power they hold. How we structure a sentence can alter the meaning of a phrase and turn the blasé into the potent.

Of course, the lack of a comma can also create havoc.

Let’s Eat Grandma.

What If I’m Not Comfortable With The Whole Grammar Thing?

We hear this a lot. Our students come to classes with big grammar chips weighing down their shoulders and we then have to urge/cajole/laugh our way through exercises and quizzes. The most important lesson we try to impart is this:

Because grammar is an ever-changing, breathing giant we should feel free to experiment and not feel so tied to those old rules we all had to memorize. Technology aids us in this as the use of white space or the placement of text on a screen often means that we need not adhere to old conventions. We may now use the power of WYSIWIG and Bold or Italicize or Center to our heart’s content.

Even Confucius has something to say about writing at work:

If language is not correct,
then what is said
is not what is meant;
If what is said
is not what is meant,
then what ought to be done
remains undone.

Tips For Making Fast Grammar Decisions

—My favorite suggestion to writers who are struggling with how to punctuate a particular sentence is simple. If the grammar feels too difficult to sort out, then rewrite the sentence. In business, clarity is our goal rather than lofty prose. There are always other sentence structure alternatives and sometimes, rather than obsessing about clauses or ending with a preposition, it’s faster and easier to simply rewrite.

Find the closest grammar geeks. We are a proud, opinionated bunch. And there is always someone in the office to happily talk you through split infinitives until your eyes roll back in your head.

—Make it easy on yourself. There are so many great grammar sites on the Internet these days. Here are three that we use a lot at StoryStudio, sometimes just because they make us laugh but more often, because they settle grammar geek arguments:

Grammar Girl, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Oatmeal are just a few of the wonderful language resources with lots of personality. Plus, many universities also have helpful grammar information online.

Want a Daily Dose?

I also follow these folks on Twitter:

@OED, Oxford English Dictionary
@GrammarGirl, Mignon Fogarty from the website of the same name
@GrammarMonkeys, real world gaffes

Jill Pollack
About Jill Pollack
As Chief Story Wrangler, Jill Pollack spends her time chasing down the best stories…and making them better. But telling a great story isn’t enough for her; she has to throw some neuroscience into the mix. Art+Science=the answer to everything. Jill is the founder and director of StoryStudio Chicago—a writing training center for creative writers and business professionals. In addition to teaching, writing, and forcing people to admit that they can’t live without great stories, Jill oversees writing training for more than 1,200 students each year. She is a frequent speaker on the power of stories in our personal and professional lives and was once again included in the Newcity Lit Top 50 list of literary leaders in Chicago.
Use commas, they matter
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