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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Comma usage is a thorny issue for many writers because the rules can seem so bewildering.  Writers who give up trying to understand them will often resort to sticking in commas whenever a sentence seems to be going on too long, in hopes that at least some of the commas will be correct, because you can never have too many commas!  Unfortunately, you can, and the incorrect use of a comma does as much damage to the flow of a sentence as a missing comma does.  Let’s clear up some confusion.

There are two basic uses of commas: to divide items in a list of 3 or more, and to set off material that is not strictly necessary to the meaning of a sentence.

1. Here are some list-separating commas:

I can’t bake a cake without flour, sugar, eggs, and unsweetened chocolate.

Henry ran to the cupboard, grabbed a stack of plates, headed back to the dining room, bumped his elbow on the doorframe, and dropped the whole stack on the hardwood floor.

Note that in each sentence there’s a list of 4 (in the first sentence, it’s a list of things; in the second it’s a list of predicates; it can be a list of anything) and that a comma separates them from one another.  This makes the sentence easy to organize and read.  The second sentence would be a real nightmare without those divider commas!

2. Here are some “setting off” commas:

I prefer to use Beauzeau Cocoa, a premium chocolate powder imported from Mozambique, to make devil’s food cake.

Henry, who is the clumsiest person I’ve ever met, has smashed twelve plates and a soup tureen since he came to work for us.

In each case the material enclosed in commas—while contributing information to the sentence—is not essential to the sentence.  Here’s proof:

I prefer to use Beauzeau Cocoa to make devil’s food cake.

Henry has smashed twelve plates and a soup tureen since he came to work for us.

When we lift the material out of the sentence, the sentence is still meaningful.  The two commas act like basket handles: they show us where the non-essential material begins and ends, and we can use them to lift that material up and away, leaving the essence of the sentence behind.

In other words, divider commas come in singles, while setting-off commas come in pairs. 

Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, since not all non-essential material is placed in the middle of a sentence.  Often it comes at the beginning:

Although he’s our clumsiest employee, Henry Mudge gets along wonderfully with the guests.

Note that “although he’s our clumsiest employee” could be placed in the middle of the sentence (after “Henry Mudge”) and enclosed in commas.  But here it begins the sentence, so only one comma is needed.

Sometimes it comes at the end:

Last night we awarded the Problematic Employee of the Month award to Henry Mudge, our beloved yet bungling waiter.

Again, the sentence could be revised (Henry Mudge, our beloved yet bungling waiter, has been awarded the Problematic Employee of the Month award) so that the non-essential material is enclosed in commas. 

In other words:  “basket handles” can consist of a comma paired with an end-of-sentence period, or a sentence starting-point paired with a comma, or two commas.

So:  When looking over your sentence to decide where (or if) to place commas, first look for lists of three or more.   Then look for phrases and clauses that are not necessary to the meaning of the sentence—passages which could be lifted out without harming the sentence’s basic meaning.  If you find one, give it basket handles.

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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Proper punctuation, such as the proper use (and non-use) of apostrophes, is a worry to all writers. It's tempting to just stop worrying about it and assume that the meaning of your sentences, written however you want to write them, will be obvious in context. But lots of times this doesn't happen. The fact is, we punctuate sentences not for ourselves, but for our readers. A properly used apostrophe instantly gives the reader precise information, without which she could become confused and lose time trying to figure out what you mean. You don't ever want to annoy or confuse your reader. A writer is nothing without a reader.

We use apostrophes for two basic reasons:

  1. to indicate possession, as in my friend's house (the house of/belonging to my friend, singular) and my parents' house (the house of/belonging to my parents, plural), and
  2. in a contraction, to indicate a missing letter or letters, as in my friend's home (my friend is home).

We do not use apostrophes in the formation of simple plural nouns, as in my friends are all here, or in the formation of the third person singular verb, as in he makes friends easily.

When a noun ends in “o” (like tomato, Latino, zero), you may be tempted to use an apostrophe because just adding “s” “looks wrong”. And with some of these words it is wrong—you have to add “es” (heroes, tomatoes, zeroes). But you don’t always add “e”—the plural of “Latino” is “Latinos”. Luckily, you don’t have to memorize lists. If you have any doubt about how to pluralize an odd noun, especially one ending in “o”, just look it up in your dictionary.

So: Take apostrophe rules seriously. Using them correctly will help your readers understand your sentences and show them you are an accomplished writer.

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Written by Jonathan Bailey, author of Plagiarism Today

Earlier, we talked about how 125 Harvard students were being students were being brought before the schools Administrative Board on allegations of plagiarism. However, now more details are coming out regarding how the scandal was detected and how it unfolded.

According to Harvard’s school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, the scandal began to unfold in May when assistant professor Matthew B. Platt sent a letter to the Administrative Board noting similarities in 13 take home exams.

Platt, who was grading the exams given to students in an “Introduction to Congress” course, said he noticed similarities between many of the tests including a strings of similar words, a typo and an unnecessary space in a number, that prompted him to take action.

To make matters worse, Platt also noticed that all of the exams in question used, “The same (incorrect) reading of the course material” and also structured their arguments in an identical manner. In fact, the exams used the same two “somewhat obscure” examples to answer the question.

It was Platt’s letter that started the Administrative Board’s investigation into the case and that investigation quickly ballooned from the from the original 13 to 125 exams. According to The Crimson, that number represents nearly half of the class involved and approximately two percent (2%) of Harvard’s total student body.

But even as the fallout from the scandal continues to settle, including the sidelining of the captain of the school’s men’s basketball team, the case has come to highlight how there are many different ways in which students who engage in academic dishonesty can be caught.

Though technology has made it easier than ever to spot copied text, many cases of plagiarism are still caught in more traditional ways. This includes students who have a sudden change in writing style, formatting issues or, as with this case, repeating the same mistakes as others.

In short, while originality detection is a major part of locating and stopping plagiarism in classrooms, it isn’t the only tool that is used. Common sense and observation are still the most powerful tools an instructor has and that makes it imperative for students to be careful with their assignments regardless of whether or not their school uses an automated system.

If 125 Harvard students can get brought before the Administrative Board because an assistant professor noticed similarities while grading tests, then any student at any other school can meet the same fate.

This is why students need to be aware of the dangers involved with turning in sloppy work and be vigilant in not plagiarizing, either intentionally or unintentionally, regardless of what their school is doing at the time.

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