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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

Is This a Basket?

In our previous discussion of comma usage, we showed that non-essential material is set off with commas—enclosed by “basket handles” that allow us to imagine lifting out the non-essential “basket” to see that the remaining sentence retains its basic meaning.

Here, in a nutshell, is the difference between essential and non-essential material:

1. My dog, Watson, is the bane of my existence.

--implies that you only have one dog, and he makes your life miserable. Even if you didn’t tell us his name, when talking about your dog you’d actually be talking about Watson. “Watson” is a non-essential term.

2. My dog Watson is the bane of my existence.

--implies that you have at least two dogs, and only one of them—Watson—is ruining your life. Any other dog you have is blameless. Removing “Watson” from this expression would make it ambiguous—would, in other words, change its meaning. Removing “Watson” would, in fact, risk besmirching the reputation of another dog!   The full meaning of the sentence depends on how it’s punctuated.

If you think of those commas in Sentence 1 as basket handles, you’ll see that the “basket” can be removed without injuring the basic meaning of the sentence:

My dog is the bane of my existence.

 On the other hand, since “Watson” in Sentence 2 is crucial to the meaning of that sentence, we don’t set it off with commas.

When trying to decide whether a modifying term or phrase is essential, we have to look for the basket.  Examples:

3. I spent most of my life waiting for something to happen.

4. I made my living, such as it was, as a writer of fiction.

In each sentence, the underlined material is clearly descriptive.  (In Sentence 3, it describes the verb “spent”—it acts as an adverb; in Sentence 4, it describes the gerund “living”—it acts as an adjective.)  In order to see whether either phrase is a basket, let’s try lifting it out:

3a. I spent most of my life.

4a. I made my living as a writer of fiction.

As you can see, 3a is an incomplete sentence—it’s missing something essential.  We read it and think…”You spent your life how?” So the underlined phrase is essential to the sentence.  It’s not a basket, and it should not be set off.   Sentence 4a is okay.  It works.  The meaning is the same as Sentence 3—it’s just missing a bit of description, a bit of extra information implying that “my living” was rather austere.  The underlined material is a basket and should be punctuated accordingly.

So:  When trying to figure out whether to use setting-off commas, look for baskets.


Commas: Dividers and Basket Handles

Self plagiarism


Writing Skills

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Professors and employers communicate that they value students and employees who possess critical thinking skills. What exactly is this thinking process that has garnered so much attention? According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking (2011):

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action” (para. 3).

Given this definition, one can see how useful critical thinking would be for a student and for an employee.

How do we gain or develop critical thinking skills?

Some people seem to have the skills naturally, while others must work at honing them. Recently, an acquaintance confided that she has had to rethink her belief system over the years. She reflected and questioned many of her long-held beliefs, and found some of them to be unfounded. This is quite a statement, but this is a good example of someone who has put critical thinking skills to effective use in her personal life.

In academia, critical thinking skills are imperative for research papers. A student must collect scholarly data, analyze the data, and formulate his or her findings, forming scholarly validation and discussion and drawing conclusions. Some students do not feel self-confident enough to step outside of their comfort zone and make original conclusions, but this practice is empowering and expected!

In the workplace, an employee with critical thinking skills will be valuable in teamwork and in problem-solving. The same steps can be followed as with the research paper. A problem is identified, research is conducted and analyzed, a solid defense of a chosen position is formulated, and a solution (or conclusion) is found and discussed.

Critical thinking skills are important throughout life. Some middle and high schools are incorporating critical thinking instruction into various classes. Debates are an effective learning tool to develop these skills. Students must enter a debate prepared with data and defend their stance. Learning and practicing critical thinking skills can form the foundation for success in academia, the workplace, and in life.


Foundation for Critical Thinking. (2011). Defining critical thinking. Retrieved from http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/defining-critical-thinking/766


The Mechanics of Scholarly Writing

How to Write a Conclusion


Writing Skills

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Written by Beth Calvano, M.Ed., Educator/Writer. Read more of Beth’s articles on herExaminer column.

Developing solid writing skills is imperative for anyone competing in today’s job market. Some college students pay freelance writers to write their papers, but not practicing writing skills can have devastating effects once that student graduates. One of the chief complaints of employers is that many new hires, college graduates, have poor writing skills. This problem costs corporations billions of dollars each year. A recruit who has excellent writing skills will stand-out among the many vying for a corporate position.

Investing time developing writing skills can be as important as developing industry-specific skills.

Businesses spend billions of dollars every year educating employees in writing skills. They consider writing skills to be imperative for employees, but businesses spend as much as 3.1 billion dollars a year training employees to be effective communicators (Quibble & Griffin, 2007). An employee’s skill reflects on the company and directly impacts job performance.  (Calvano, 2010, p. 11)

Students can find help in college writing labs, but help exists in other places as well. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) is an excellent resource for anyone wishing to improve their writing skills. The website offers MLA and APA formatting guidelines, exercises, plagiarism avoidance instruction, and basic business letter writing techniques.

Many English grammar and writing skills tutorials exist online.  Search engine investigations will turn-up websites that can help the searcher with general and specific writing needs. Taking advantage of the vast number of free writing resources is a positive recourse. The tutorials can be taken online in the privacy of home and at convenient times. Developing good writing skills will set one apart from the many others in a class or in a work environment.


Calvano, B. (2010). Improving the basic English language skills of college freshmen. Retrieved from University of Phoenix Dissertation and Theses database.

Quibble, Z. & Griffin, F. (2007). Are writing deficiencies creating a lost generation of business writers? Journal of Education for Business, 83(1), 32-36. Retrieved from ProQuest database.


Writing Skills

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