Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Poem for Hope

I don't write poetry very often, but sometimes I do. I wrote the following a few years ago. With the recent passing of my dear aunt, it seems somehow appropriate to share.


Your world is different from mine:
Run by ceaseless watchdogs
Who use guns and sticks
To protect trembling sheep
From unrelenting wolves.

If I am sheep, as you say,
Then I am in good stead
With lambs who sought wolves
To fill the wolves’ hearts with love:
Jesus, Martin, Mahatma.

But I don’t think of myself
As a lamb, nor as a lion
Roaring alone in the wild,
Nor as any animal of the earth,
For no body may contain me.

I am the wind: free and fleeting,
Intangible yet felt,
Unseen yet strong;
Wild with the breath of God,
I move, I warm, I inspire.

I am the evening caress
Through a young woman’s hair;
I fill the nostrils of the old man
With promise for a new day.
I drift where I am needed:

I rise on currents
And sink into ebbs
To stroke the ear of a young child,
Fraught with fear. I whisper, “It’s okay.
Go out and play!”

She listens if she wishes;
She ignores me if she must.
But she sees her future
(Or one telling glimpse)
Whether she knows it or not.

 © 2008-2015, Greg Gildersleeve

Sunday, January 18, 2015

How to Use the Comma: Rule No. 3—Set Off Introductory and Trailing Ideas

Commas aid the reader by separating the main part of a sentence from a clause or phrase that adds extra information. 

(Note: Click here for Comma Rules 1 and 2.)

Introductory Clauses and Phrases

A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. A phrase lacks one or the other. Either can be used to start a sentence:

  • While John was studying for his English exam, he felt the urge to go for a walk.

  • While studying for his English exam, John felt the urge to go for a walk.

The main part of the sentence is he felt the urge to go for a walk. The introductory element merely gives us a reason or context for John’s feeling. 

Some students question the need for the comma, yet its function becomes clear when we  remove it from the following sentence:

  • Although John liked Mary Nelson liked her better.

Without the aid of a comma, the reader stumbles over the sentence before realizing that “Mary Nelson” is not one person.

Other Introductory Elements

Offset short one- or two-word introductions:

  • Naturally, Susan wanted to go out and play.

  • Brandon hated the film.  For example, he said the plot was too unrealistic.

Some short introductory words do not require a comma when the meaning is already clear:

  • Now you can find almost anything online.

  • Soon it will all be over.

Trailing Clauses and Phrases

Trailing clauses and phrases also provide additional information but they come at the end of the sentence:

  • Robert Mitchum starred in The Night of the Hunter, a film directed by Charles Laughton.

  • It rained, causing the party to be cancelled.

Novice writers may be confused when a trailing or introductory phrase is longer than the main part of the sentence, as in the second example, above. The deciding factor, however, is that the first clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence; the second cannot.

Introductory elements can also be moved to the end of a sentence or even in the middle.  As a general rule, include a comma if it clarifies the meaning of the sentence or expresses a break in thought.  Note that commas are needed in the following sentences

  • Susan wanted to go out and play, naturally.

  • He said the plot, for example, was too unrealistic.

but not in this one:

  • John felt the urge to go for a walk while studying for his English exam.
What If Your Sentence Contains Both an Introductory and a Trailing Element?

In general, writers should avoid creating sentences where commas are needed to offset both introductory and trailing thoughts:

  • While waiting for the storm to pass, Martin told the children ghost stories, frightening Annie and Josh.
In this case, the main part of the sentence (Martin told the children ghost stories) becomes obscured by the two additional elements.  The reader naturally expects the sentence to end after “stories.”

Writers can avoid such confusion in a number of ways, such as using a dash

  •  While waiting for the storm to pass, Martin told the children ghost stories—    frightening Annie and Josh.

or by splitting the sentence in two:

  • While waiting for the storm to pass, Martin told the children ghost stories.  Annie and Josh were frightened by his eerie tales.
Test Yourself

Correct the following sentence?  (Answer appears at the end of the article.)

  • Fortunately Martha booked the recital hall allowing us to hold the party the next day.

There are many other uses for commas, but using them to join sentences (Rule No. 1), offset interrupters (Rule No. 2), and separate introductory and trailing ideas will give your writing variety and spice and in a clear, easy-to-read fashion. (One answer:  “Fortunately, Martha booked the recital hall. Her resourcefulness allowed us to hold the party the next day.”)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

How to Use the Comma: Rule No. 2—Interrupters

Use commas to set off short ideas, such as this one, that “interrupt” the main sentence.


[This is another in a series of grammar posts I'll be reprinting from my now defunct Suite 101 page. Comma Rule No. 1 can be found here.] 

“Don’t interrupt!”  That’s good advice when it comes from parents or teachers, but when composing a sentence, often interrupt the main idea to add an important secondary idea or for sentence variety. An interrupter can be a word, a phrase, or even a longer sentence that is inserted into main sentence. In this example,

The original members of the band—who were all born in Coventry—came together in the early ‘70s.

The phrase “who were all born in Coventry” is an interrupter. Notice that you can take it and the sentence still makes perfect sense.

An interrupter can be helpful for including a short piece of information that adds something to understanding of the subject, but which are not important enough to start a new sentence.

Sentence interrupters are a common feature of the English language; however, they need to be punctuated properly.

Short Words and Phrases

Use a comma on both sides of a short interrupting word or phrase:

            You are welcome, of course, to come to dinner.

Novice writers often remember to put in the first comma but not the second:

            You are welcome, of course to come to dinner.

The second comma, however, clarifies the phrase as an interrupter. 


An appositive phrase is a special kind of interrupter that is used to identify the preceding noun:

John Smith, director of human resources, said that the company is hiring for several positions.

            Jim brought his guitar, a 12-string Rickenbacker, to the party.

Long Interrupters

For long interrupting phrases or phrases with internal punctuation, it is common practice to use dashes instead of commas.  Notice that dashes both precede and follow the interrupter, just as a comma would:

The Beatles—an English rock group consisting of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Star—impacted Western culture in significant ways.

Writers also use dashes instead of commas to draw attention to a particular idea:

            You are welcome—of course—to come to dinner.

In this case, the writer wants to strongly emphasize the invitation.

Test Yourself

Where are commas needed in the following sentence?  (Answer appears at end of article.)

Learning grammar and punctuation like learning to play a fine instrument gives writers more power and flexibility in their writing.

Use commas to offset short interrupting ideas in a sentence, but be sure to place commas both before and after the interrupter.  (Answer: Place a comma after “punctuation” and after “instrument.”)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

How to Use the Comma: Rule No. 1—Using Commas with Clauses

It's a new year, so I'm inaugurating a new round of blog posting. I'll start by posting some of the helpful writing tips I wrote for the now defunct Suite 101 site a few years ago. First up: the handy but not-so-dandy comma.

The comma: the most used piece of punctuation in the English language but also the most misunderstood.  

Students of writing are often told by well-meaning teachers to put a comma in a sentence wherever they would pause while speaking the sentence. However, this is not very useful advice. Pausing may depend on the individual writer’s preference, and it may also vary from oral communication to written speech.  For example, in the sentence

 Learning to use commas the proper way can only enhance a student’s skills in writing and reading.

some speakers may pause after the word “way.”  Others may pause after “writing.”  Either way is fine; however, no commas are needed in the sentence.

Learning a few simple rules can help students and even more experienced writers communicate more effectively and avoid embarrassing mistakes. We'll start off with the admittedly arbitrary Rule No. 1: Using commas with clauses.

Independent Clauses

A clause is an arrangement of words that conveys an idea. For example, “to go to the store” conveys an idea, although it is not complete. An independent clause contains a complete thought than can be expressed as a sentence: “John went to the store.”

A sentence, by the way, needs two elements: a subject and a verb.  The shortest verse in the Bible—“Jesus wept.”—has both elements and so it is a complete sentence.

On the other hand, a dependent clause needs something to complete it. If we stick the word “After” in front of “John went to the store,” we need another clause—an independent one—to complete the thought:

                        After John went to the store, he made dinner.

Joining Independent Clauses
Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses:

                        John went to the store, and he bought milk.

A coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so--FANBOYS, mnemonically) is a short word that clarifies the relationship between elements of a sentence. It helps writers avoid a common error known as a comma splice:

                        John went the the store, he bought milk.

If two clauses can stand alone, they should not be joined together with only a comma. This is just one of those English-language rules that writers have come to accept as true. If you violate this rule--even intentionally--you will look as if you don't know the difference. (And, let's be honest: Don't you feel like your ready to stop the sentence after "store"?)

Notice that you could also put a period or a semicolon in place of the comma, and either would work just fine.

When to Leave Out the Comma

Suppose we want to shorten the sentence:

                        John went to the store and bought milk.

Notice that the comma is removed because the phrase “bought milk” cannot stand on its own.

Test Yourself

Are commas needed in the following sentences?  (Answers appear at the end of the article.)

         a. John went to the store and Mary made dinner.

         b. Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president and was assassinated.

         c. George Washington was the first president but he never lived in the White House.

         d.  John Adams came in second in the election so he became the first vice president.

         e.  Adams later became president but served only one term.

Commas help clarify relationships between the elements of a sentence and sometimes (but not always) provide a necessary pause. Knowing when to use a comma—to separate independent clauses, for example—can save you time and embarrassment.  (Answer: commas are needed in sentences a, c, and d.)

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...