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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: The Grammar Grind

The Grammar Grind: Apostrophes

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Apostrophes are one of the trickiest types of punctuation to master, apart from commas. The rules are straight forward, but the exceptions are what make them tricky. Their primary function is to indicate ownership. However, they are also used to show omission of letters, and, in very rare cases, in forming plurals. The hardest thing to master is their use with irregular nouns and compound nouns, so pay particular attention to placement when dealing with those.

Possession

The Basics

The most basic types of possession, singular and plural, are shown using either ’s or just an apostrophe.

Singular: the dog’s bone Plural: the kids’ toys

Sometimes the plural part can be tricky when you’re dealing with collective nouns or irregular plurals.

Examples: the children’s coats; the women’s restroom; the group’s assignment

But the basic idea is the same. An s is always used, and the apostrophe is placed after the s if the item’s plural already has one and before it in the case of singular possession and collective/irregular nouns.

When it comes to possession in particular, the exceptions and deviations abound. The first example of this is it’s vs. its. In this particular case, the apostrophe is indicating an omission of letters (i.e. a contraction) rather than possession, so the its without the apostrophe becomes the possessive one. It also happens to fall under a category called personal pronoun possessions, none of which use an apostrophe since they inherently show ownership. The same is true for the relative pronoun who—which changes to whose—and noun plurals (with the exception of lowercase letters, which I’ll touch more on later).

For common and proper nouns already ending in s, there is actually quite a bit of dispute. Some say you should always add ’s, and others say you should stick to just the apostrophe. Others yet say to choose depending on how the word sounds when spoken. A nice middle ground—one that is widely accepted and practiced—is to use an apostrophe without the s for proper nouns (like names) and ’s for common nouns.

Example: the mistress’s gown; the Jones’ contribution

That method is my personal preference simply because it’s a better fit than solely using one or the other, and it’s more consistent than just picking one based on how the word sounds.

Note: For names in particular, make sure you’re not changing the spelling of the last name simply because of how the possessive form sounds when you say it. This is especially true for possessive plurals of proper names ending in s, such as Jones and Edwards.

If you’re attending a party hosted by Josh and Patricia Smith, for example, it would be the Smiths’ party. But if Mr. and Mrs. Edwards have a party, an –es must be added to make the name plural BEFORE possession is indicated. It would then become the Edwardses’ party. No matter how awkward the results, names already ending in s must take on the –es ending to become plural possessives.

Tip: With plural possessives, always form the plural first, then add the appropriate punctuation for possession.

Compound Nouns and Compound Possession

For singular compound nouns (mother-in-law), the standard ’s is used.

Example: his mother-in-law's house

If a plural compound noun is used, the plural of the root noun is formed (brothers-in-law), and then the ’s is added.

Example: my brothers-in-law's cars

If the same item is possessed by more than one person, the ’s is used after the second name only.

Example: George and Cassandra’s house

If a pronoun is used in place of one of the names but there is still joint ownership, use the possessive form for both.

Correct: George’s and my house Incorrect: George and my house (possession should be shown for George) Incorrect: George’s and my’s house (my is a personal pronoun possession and already shows ownership without an apostrophe)

Correct: Her and George’s house is up for sale. Incorrect: She and George’s house is up for sale. (Even though it may sound more correct to use she, the pronoun is actually showing ownership here and is not the subject of the sentence—house is—so the possessive form her must be used.)

To show separate possession of a similar item, use the possessive form for both subjects.

Example A: Mike’s and Katrina’s cars are both blue. (They each have their own car, and both cars are blue.) Example B: The cat’s and dog’s beds are in the living room. (The cat and dog each have their own bed, and the beds are located in the living room.)

Joint ownership of more than one item is expressed the same way as a single item being possessed by those people.

Example A: Daphne and Justin’s homes are both lovely. (They jointly own more than one home.) Example B: Daphne and Justin’s dog and cat love playing outdoors. (The dog and cat belong to both Daphne and Justin.)

Amounts of time or money can be used as possessive adjectives. They are always used in the plural possessive form, requiring an apostrophe after the possessive noun.

Example A: In three days’ time, I have written ten short stories. Example B: If you want my two cents’ worth, I’d look for another house.

Note: Be aware of nouns ending in y. Changing the y to –ies does not result in a possessive, only a plural. This is a frequent mistake I run into when editing documents, particularly for businesses.

Correct: the company’s website Correct: both companies’ websites Incorrect: the companies website

Contractions and Plurals

Using Apostrophes to Omit Letters

Contractions are becoming quite common in our everyday language, and as such, most people are familiar with their use and that of the apostrophe to omit letters in word. For example, the words can’t, won’t, and aren’t are common contractions that combine the verbs can, will, and are with the word not. Most people have no problem using an apostrophe in those instances. However, when a word or number is contracted, it can be easy to accidentally use the incorrect punctuation for an apostrophe. This is mainly a problem because of the “smart quotes” feature on word processors.

Particularly in the case of fonts that use curly quotation marks for single quotes, pressing the quotation mark key to show omission of letters may result in an opening single quotation mark (‘) rather than an apostrophe (’). The key is in the curl. The curl should be in the direction of the missing letters. In other words, the tail should point down, not up.

Correct: I love rock ’n’ roll. Incorrect: I love rock ‘n’ roll.

Correct: I was born in ’64. Incorrect: I was born in ‘64.

Another thing to be careful of is the word until. Many people use 'til as the contracted form of it, but that is actually nonstandard and considered incorrect. The correct word is till, from which until was derived. Till originated around the 12th century or earlier; until didn’t pop into existence until the 13th century.

Using Apostrophes to Form Plurals

The only time an apostrophe is permitted in creating plurals is with lowercase letters. Example: Mind your p’s and q’s.

However, many grammaticians and editors don’t even use apostrophes for that purpose. So if in doubt, just don’t use them!

Any other use of an apostrophe to make a plural apart from the exception mentioned above is incorrect and deemed an “idiot’s apostrophe.” This includes writing the plurals for decades, abbreviations, and uppercase letters. While the prior practice was to add an apostrophe in these cases, it is no longer accepted as correct to do so. The only one that you could probably get away with—though the preference is still no apostrophe—is the uppercase letters.

Correct: Flared pants were popular in the 1970s and then again in the early 2000s. Incorrect: Flared pants were popular in the 1970’s and then again in the early 2000’s. Correct: Flared pants were popular in the ’70s and then again in the early 2000s. Incorrect: Flared pants were popular in the 70s and then again in the early 2000s. (An apostrophe is needed before 70s to indicate the omission of the numbers preceding it.)

Correct: How many DVDs do you own? Incorrect: How many DVD’s do you own?

Correct: I had three As and two Bs this semester! Incorrect: I had three A’s and two B’s this semester!

You should also be aware of false possessives. They often end in s but don’t indicate possession; they are simply noun-derived adjectives or adjective phrases modifying another noun.

Correct: What is your favorite Beatles song? Incorrect: What is your favorite Beatles' song?

Correct: I am not fond of New Orleans food. Incorrect: I am not fond of New Orleans’ food.

Correct: The city streets were paved with gold. Incorrect: The city’s streets were paved with gold. (This one is really tricky, but technically, inanimate objects such as a city cannot own anything; therefore, it would be incorrect to give it a possessive form.)

Also, never use an apostrophe to make a name plural. Apostrophes are only used with names to indicate possession.

Well, that wraps up The Grammar Grind series! I wanted to give special thanks to all my followers for your support on this series in particular. I’ve had a number of people come to me and say how helpful this series has been, and it’s very inspiring to know that others are finding the information useful. So thank you! I’ve really enjoyed writing this series, and I actually have a big announcement regarding this series coming up in the near future, so keep an eye out for it!

The Grammar Grind: Exclamation Marks

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

exclaimpoint Exclamation marks are pretty straight forward. They are used after interjections, strong declarations, and commands to indicate intense feelings or volume. They are rarely used in formal writing but can be a great asset to fictional works when used sparingly.

When to Use Them

Exclamation points are used to express anger, excitement, nervousness, and other intense emotions. It’s pretty easy to spot when they’re necessary, and few of us have difficulties placing them. So why a whole article about them? Overuse.

In fiction writing, it’s easy to sometimes get a bit overzealous with these guys, especially when it comes to scenes with conflict and a lot of dialogue. While most people believe that exclamation marks create tension, I tend to argue otherwise. A large quantity can actually detract from the tension and hide some of the underlying emotions that really make a scene intense. It can also hinder your writing abilities. Your best bet is to use a mixture of stylizing for emphasis with dialogue and couple that with a strong narrative. It kind of goes back to the old “show rather than tell” advice.

Here’s an example of overuse:

“You came all this way just to tell me that?! How dare you!” Cynthia screamed.

“Well, excuse me for being honest!” Tom spat. “I thought we were in this relationship together, but I was wrong!”

With that, Tom stormed out of the room and left Cynthia fuming.

“Ugh! That man!” Cynthia said to thin air. “I don’t know what I ever saw in him!”

While this is clearly a tense scene and there are some heightened emotions behind the dialogue, the writing is pretty flat, and the multitude of exclamation marks come across as rather amateurish, leaving the whole scene to be less effective than desired. So let’s try cutting out some exclamation marks, stylizing a few words that we want to emphasize, and letting the actions of the characters express more of their emotions:

“You came all this way just to me that? How dare you!” Cynthia’s voice shook as she spoke.

Salty droplets splattered down her new Chanel sweater. It was a beautiful shade of green that made her blue eyes shimmer even more as they welled up with fresh tears.

Tom’s face slackened as Cynthia’s eyes dropped to the floor. She quickly crossed her arms and snapped her head up long enough to shoot him a rather nasty look.

His brow immediately furrowed. He spat some as he spoke: “Well, excuse me for being honest! I thought we were in this relationship together.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I guess I was wrong.”

Cynthia uncrossed her arms and wiped her tear-streaked face. Her mouth opened then closed, but no words came out. After a second failed attempt, Tom stormed out of the room.

Cynthia clenched her fists, her whole body shaking. “UGH! That man…” she said to thin air. “I don’t know what I ever saw in him.”

Now the emotions clearly have some depth to them. The dialogue conveys anger, betrayal, confusion, and pain, all without excessive use of exclamation marks. The stronger narrative also adds quite a bit to the quality of the writing, providing extra imagery, reducing the amount of “talking heads,” and using body language to convey what the characters are feeling from moment to moment.

Another common issue with exclamation marks is inappropriate use. This deals with using them in places where they seldom belong, such as formal writing, and places where a period or other punctuation would suffice.

For example, an exclamation mark can be used after a word and placed in parenthesis in order to emphasize it; however, this is often overkill.

We got a huge (!) tax return this year.

The word “huge” is indicative enough. An exclamation mark is completely unnecessary and just looks contrived.

We got our tax return (yay!) and plan to buy a new TV with it.

The combination of the parenthesis and exclamatory word technically work, but there’s a better way of writing the sentence that isn’t quite so informal.

Yay! We got our tax return and plan to buy a new TV with it.

Or simply,

We got our tax return and plan to buy a new TV with it.

After all, everyone can gather the excitement of the situation based on the content of the sentence.

Exclamation marks can also accompany onomatopoeias, but again, there is usually a better way to write the sentence.

Example: Thud! He plopped the heavy book on the table in front of him. Rewrite: The heavy book landed with a thud as he plopped it on the table in front of him.

Stylization and Other Punctuation

When stating the title of a work, punctuation marks should only be italicized if they are part of the title itself.

I loved the latest episode of Mythbusters!      NOT   I loved the latest episode of Mythbusters!

Sometimes statements beginning with interrogative words can correctly and effectively use exclamation marks.

Why, I never!

Intense questions sometimes use them as well, though I prefer the combination of an exclamation mark and a question mark in those cases, better known as an interrobang.

Are you serious?!        OR      Are you serious‽

When using exclamation points with dialogue, the context will determine whether they should lie inside or outside the quotation marks. If the exclamation mark is part of the dialogue itself, it belongs inside the quotation marks. If it is part of the statement about the dialogue, it belongs outside.

He warned me to “be careful about that!”     VS.      He warned me to “be careful about that”!

(Emphasis is on the warning in the first sentence and on the statement as a whole in the second.)

In very informal writing, multiple exclamation points can be used together. However, it’s recommended to keep that to personal emails and Facebook posts and the like.

Exclamation marks are useful tools in creative writing. They can enhance dialogue when used sparingly and mingle with question marks to create some pretty cool punctuation. Just make sure they don’t become a crutch!

The Grammar Grind: Question Marks

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

This post has been a long time coming, but I appreciate everyone's patience during my maternity leave! Question marks are one of the most common basic types of punctuation. However, they are one of the easiest to misuse, so I wanted to include them in this series to clarify the rules, exceptions, and conflicting style choices.

There are exactly four situations in which a question mark should be used: after a direct question, after a sentence that includes both a statement and a question, after a rhetorical question, and with interrogative dialogue. Never use a question mark after an indirect question.

Direct vs. Indirect Questions

Direct questions are interrogative sentences that directly ask the reader (or another character) something and demand a direct answer. They typically start with why, when, how, what, where, could, should, would, if, or will.

Example A: Why did you come home so late? Example B: When was the last time she talked to you?

Indirect questions are statements and should end with a period. They simply express a thought and don’t require a direct answer. You’ll know that a sentence is an indirect question by the placement of the interrogative key words; rather than starting the sentence, they will be found in the middle.

Example A: I wonder where my shoes are. Example B: I asked John what he had eaten for lunch. Example C: Suzy wanted to know if I had time to look over her paper.

Be careful to distinguish between an indirect question and an embedded question, which does require a question mark at the end.

Example: I wonder: what would he say if I asked him out?

…which is different from…

I wonder what he would say if I asked him out.

They key is in the placement of the two words “would” and “he.” When the key interrogative word comes first, the sentence becomes a question. When the subject/pronoun comes first, the sentence becomes a statement/indirect question.

Statement/Question Sentences

Sentences that include both a statement and a question—mixed sentences—should also end with a question mark. The emphasis is placed on the interrogative predicate in those cases, which means that the overall sentence becomes interrogative itself. And following the punctuation hierarchy, a question mark overrides a period in every case.

Example: It’s going to rain soon, isn’t it?

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are those requiring no answer. They are often asked with a sarcastic tone or in order to express a feeling. And while some sources argue that these types of questions should end in periods since there isn’t really an expected response, I strongly disagree and insist that they end with a question mark. Here’s why.

This type of sentence still presents a question, and using period to end the sentence could cause potential confusion for the reader as far as interpreting the correct meaning of the sentence.

Incorrect: What do I have to do to get noticed around here. (Even Microsoft Word flags the punctuation as incorrect, by the way.) The person asking the question isn’t looking for a direct answer so much as they are expressing their frustration.

However, apart from even looking incorrect, this sentence is still a question and should be punctuated as such.

Correct: What do I have to do to get noticed around here?

If you still need convincing that a question mark is the more appropriate punctuation, look at the historical account of the question mark. The standard use of the punctuation with this type of sentence actually derived from a specific punctuation mark that was the reverse image of the standard one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Question_mark#Stylistic_variants. Its use just died out sometime in the 17th century.

Question Marks and Quotation Marks

As mentioned in a previous article of mine about quotation marks, question marks should be placed logically within the sentence. If the overall statement is a question, the question mark should fall outside the parenthesis. If only the quoted material is interrogative, the question mark should go inside the quotation marks. And as with any other sentence, the question mark always overrides a period.

Example A: What do you mean when you say, “We’ll see”? Example B: I asked Sarah, “When do you think you’ll be finished?”

(Notice that the question mark is the only ending punctuation in both cases.)

Other Stylistic Differences

Lastly, there can be some stylistic differences that truly depend on the type of piece you are writing. For instance, if you are writing a work of fiction, you might choose to keep the first letter of a series of questions lowercase.

Example: Where are you going? the mall? the movies? to a restaurant?

That is perfectly acceptable with an informal piece. However, because they are considered new sentences whereby the question mark is replacing a period, my personal preference (and the style you should probably use if you are writing a more formal piece) is to capitalize the beginning of each question:

Where are you going? The mall? The movies? To a restaurant?

Word also flags the lowercase punctuation here as incorrect, just as it did with the period at the end of a rhetorical question.

Overall, question marks are pretty simple and straight forward. Just take a logical approach, and you’ll have the hang of them in no time.

The Grammar Grind: Clauses and Phrases – Part 2

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

For Part 2 of my “Clauses and Phrases” post (Part 1 can be found here), I’ll be focusing on phrases. Like clauses, phrases help connect ideas. They also expand on them and give details that otherwise wouldn’t be known. Phrase placement and what to include are the biggest factors in writing fiction and nonfiction pieces. Manipulation of phrases is essential to good writing and can provide readers with subtle hints.

What Is a Phrase?

A phrase is a group of related words within a sentence that functions as a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, or preposition. They contain a subject or a predicate but never both. They cannot stand on their own and function as a small element of the overall sentence.

Phrase Types

There are seven basic types of phrases. Each type functions as a different part of speech and typically modifies a noun. However, as in the case of an absolute phrase, phrases can sometimes modify the entire sentence.

Noun Phrase

A noun phrase consists of a noun and any other related words that modify it. This can include articles, adjectives, and even other phrases. The entire noun phrase functions as a noun in the overall sentence and can be used as the subject or an object.

Example A: The girl in the yellow hat walked through the park. Example B: We visited the newly constructed movie theater.

Within the category of noun phrase, there are three subtypes: appositive, gerund, and infinitive phrases. Each functions as specialized noun phrase.

Appositive Phrase

An appositive phrase renames another noun in the overall sentence—usually one that immediately precedes it. It acts as a parenthetical phrase that often further explains the noun that it modifies, so it is considered nonessential to the sentence and should be set off with commas.

Example: My neighbor’s cat, a large Maine Coon, greets me whenever I come to visit.

Gerund Phrase

A gerund phrase consists of an –ing verb (a gerund) and other modifiers. The whole phrase then acts as a noun in the overall sentence. A gerund can act as a subject, an object, and sometimes an appositive.

Example A: Baking cakes is one of my hobbies. Example B: My dad likes to go fishing on the weekend. Example C: My lifelong passion, becoming a writer, has been a dream of mine since I was a little girl.

Infinitive Phrase

An infinitive phrase uses the word “to” and the simple form of a verb with other modifiers to create a phrase. The phrase then can function as a noun, adjective, or adverb within the overall sentence.

Be careful not to confuse an infinitive phrase with a prepositional one though. “To” is indeed a common preposition, which usually heads a prepositional phrase; however, an infinitive phrase will always use a simple verb with the word “to” to create the phrase. A prepositional phrase will not.

Example A: I love to eat cookies. Example B: Her plans to hang out with friends changed after she got her assignments for the day. Example C: He drove to the store to shop for groceries.

Verb Phrase

A verb phrase is simply a main verb and its auxiliary or helping verbs (a verb group). However, it can also consist of other modifiers, so it can potentially refer to the entire predicate of a sentence.

Example A: He is tying a knot. Example B: We have been volunteering at a local shelter. (“Have been volunteering” is the main verb group in this sentence.)

Adverbial Phrase

An adverbial phrase consists of adverbs or another group of words (usually a prepositional phrase) that functions as an adverb in a sentence. In other words, it modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb.

Example A: The curtain closed very slowly at the end of the show. Example B: The apple rolled under the table.

Adjectival Phrase

An adjectival phrase consists of adjectives and any modifiers or another group of words that functions as an adjective in a sentence. Adjective phrases always modify nouns.

Example A: The big red ball bounced down the street. Example B: The boy with the blue shirt often sits in front of me on the bus.

Participial Phrase

A participial phrase consists of a verb ending in –ing (present participle) or a past tense verb as well as other modifiers. It acts as an adjective within a sentence and can be essential or nonessential. If it is a nonessential phrase within a sentence, it is set off with commas.

Example A: The boy sitting in the first row forgot his notebook today. (Essential – The phrase specifies which boy is being referred to.)

Example B: Sitting in the first row, Michael searched for his lost notebook. (Nonessential – Where Michael is sitting is irrelevant to what he is doing/the overall meaning of the sentence.)

Example C: Devastated that she couldn’t find her favorite shoes, Mira settled for a comfortable pair of flats. (Nonessential – Why Mira settled for the flats doesn’t matter for the overall message of the sentence.)

Prepositional Phrase

A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition, an object of that preposition, and often other modifiers/adjectives. It acts as an adjective or adverb within a sentence.

Example A: The pot on the stove was still hot. Example B: The ball rolled over the hill.

Absolute Phrase

An absolute phrase is a group of words containing a noun or pronoun and participle (and often other modifiers) that modifies the entire sentence. Very close to a clause, it can contain every element found in a sentence except a finite verb. Absolute phrases are considered nonessential elements in a sentence because they provide extra information that doesn’t change the overall meaning of the sentence, so they are set off with commas.

Example A: Her head held high, she entered the room with as much confidence as she could muster. (With the finite verb “was,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: Her head was held high.)

Example B: He shuffled across the room, his eyes scanning for anything unusual. (With the finite verb “were,” the absolute phrase would be a complete sentence: His eyes were scanning for anything unusual.)

Phrases are bit tricky, but with some practice, mastering them can give you an edge on your writing and make it flourish.

The Grammar Grind: Clauses and Phrases – Part 1

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Though most people don’t think about them on an individual level, clauses and phrases join to form every sentence we write and read. While parts of speech are the building blocks of the English language, clauses and phrases work together to connect ideas and give them proper flow and readability. In short, their structure helps us make sense of those ideas. In fiction (and even nonfiction), knowing how to manipulate clauses and phrases are essential to good writing. Without them, sentence variation wouldn’t exist. So let’s start with the basics.

What Is a Clause?

Clauses are groups of related words that have a subject and a verb. Some clauses are dependent, and others are independent. Clauses also help determine when and where commas are needed.

Clause Types

Independent Clauses Independent clauses include a subject and a verb, and they express a complete thought. In other words, they can stand alone.

Example: The cat sat on the windowsill.

Dependent or Subordinating Clauses Dependent clauses also contain a subject and a verb—though they don’t always directly state both (see Example B)—but they do not express a complete thought and are reliant on independent clauses to support them. In other words, they cannot stand on their own and are not sentences.

Example A: When traveling to another country… Example B: …but didn’t show up until 9 p.m. (In the last example, the subject would be implied from the independent clause preceding it; however, since it is not directly stated in the second part, that part is considered a dependent clause, and NO COMMA is used before it.)

Dependent clauses are also the trickiest clauses to master, particularly when it comes to punctuation, because there are several different types.

Relative Clauses (Adjective Clauses) Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun and function as an adjective. They can be restrictive or nonrestrictive depending on the context.

Restrictive relative clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence and are NOT set off with commas. They can specify which item/person is being referred to out of several choices, or they can provide information that is crucial to the surrounding clauses.

Example A: The cashier who checked me out at the grocery store was very friendly. In the above example, the relative clause is considered restrictive because it specifies which of the many cashiers working there the sentence is referring to; therefore, no commas are used.

Example B: The television that he chose was one of the most highly rated ones of the year.

In Example B, the restrictive relative clause dictates which television the information following it is discussing. Another very important thing to note about this example is the use of the word that. The word which would actually be incorrect here; it is primarily used for setting off nonrestrictive relative clauses. Grammar Girl has some great tips on the topic.

Nonrestrictive relative clauses are not essential to the meaning of the sentence and could be left out without changing the overall meaning. This type of relative clause is ALWAYS set off with commas.

Example A: Jack, who is our new biology teacher, will be starting next week.

The relative clause in the above example actually tells us two things. First, it tells us that Jack is the new biology teacher, an added detail that is nice to know but isn’t crucial to the overall meaning of the sentence. However, it also implies that the narrator is referring to a specific Jack that the reader is already aware of, indicated by the surrounding commas. Without the commas, it would be assumed that there is more than one Jack and that it was necessary for the narrator to specify which one he was talking about.

Example B: Blueberries, which are a great source of Vitamin C, are one of my favorite fruits.

Example B includes a relative clause that provides us with extra information about the subject that it modifies, but the information does not restrict the subject in any way, so it is considered nonessential and should be set off with commas. Note the use of the word which here rather than that.

Noun Clauses Noun clauses function are a string of words that function as a noun in the sentence. However, they differ from a noun phrase in the fact that contain both a subject and a verb.

Example A: I don’t remember what I ate for dinner. Example B: The question is whether or not the rope will hold. Example C: The winner will be determined by whoever gets the most votes.

Important note about pronoun cases (who, whom, whoever, whomever): Which pronoun should be used is determined by the role it plays in its own clause, NOT by its relation to the rest of the sentence. Example C illustrates this idea.

Adverbial Clauses (most often referred to as subordinate clauses) Adverbial clauses begin with a subordinating conjunction and answer the question when, how, where, why, to what extent, or under what conditions something happens. They can be found anywhere in the sentence but are most commonly found at the beginning or end. Such clauses used at the beginning of a sentence are followed by a comma. Those found at the end are not, except in cases of extreme contrast.

Example A: While you were busy playing games, I completed my art project. Example B: You need to clean up your room before you can hang out with your friends. Example C: We just purchased a new television, though our budget is tight. (A comma is used in the last example because of a contrasting situation.)

Because is probably the most difficult subordinating conjunction to deal with regarding comma usage. While a comma is always used after it when it starts a clause at the beginning of a sentence, whether or not a comma is required before it at the end of a sentence depends solely on the overall meaning of the sentence. A comma is typically only used for clarification.

Example A: Because we missed the bus, our mom drove us to school. Example B: We went for a walk because it was such a nice day. Example C: I didn’t work today, because I was sick. (The comma in the last example is needed for clarification. Without it, it implies that there might be an alternative meaning that doesn’t really make much sense: that the narrator did work today, not because he was sick, but for some other reason that wasn’t expressed. Many times, the comma before “because” will be required when the first half of the sentence is negated, as was the case in Example C.)

Side note: Subordinating conjunctions are not the same as conjunctive adverbs. So watch out for those. You can learn about them in my previous posts about parts of speech and semicolons.