The Journal: Know What Stuff Is

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: Know What Stuff Is
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Marcel Proust

I like that quote. I’ve often told others that memoir is closer to fiction than to nonfiction because it’s a writer remembering what happened at a point in time. Fiction is a writer remembering something that could have happened at a point in time.

“If you’re a good writer and want to write literary magazine material, start a blog, tell all your friends about it and see who shows up.” The Passive Guy

Topic: Know What Stuff Is

I could have just written “Know the Rules,” but that doesn’t quite cover it. Knowing you need to join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction doesn’t much matter if you don’t know what a clause is, or a conjunction, or, for that matter, a comma. Hence the title of this post.

Oh pretty much everyone knows a comma is that little curly thing that pops up every now and then in a lot of sentences, but do they know why, specifically, the writer used the comma? What, specifically, the comma forces the reader—every reader who encounters one—to do every time they encounter it?

Um, nope. In fact, very few writers know that. Which is why I wrote Punctuation for Writers almost thirty years ago. Among many, many other things, it explains that of all the punctuation, the comma forces the shortest pause. It also explains the effect that has on the reader.

Then PFW goes on to explain the only five comma rules you’ll ever need (and really it’s only three) and the effect that every other punctuation mark has on the reader and why it’s important. In other words, it explains the reasons behind the rules. I guarantee these are things you never heard in school at any level. Well, unless my in-person seminars were part of your education).

But again, knowing the rules, and even knowing the reasons behind the rules, doesn’t matter out of context. There’s nothing wrong with breaking the rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation if you break them intelligently and to achieve a particular effect in the reader. But to do that, you have to know those rules and the “stuff” alluded to in the title.

By way of example, a word on Grammarly—I detest Grammarly. In a television commercial, they actually defined a “run-on” sentence as “a really long sentence.”

Some of you right now are thinking, Seriously? A company with a name like that should know better, shouldn’t they? If you aren’t thinking that, stay tuned.

The problem is, the people who trust Grammarly for advice on grammar are the people who don’t know better and therefore believe they need that advice. Of course, they don’t. They need to learn the rules on their own, but humans are apt to listen to any old thing that sounds right. For just one example, certainly the term “run-on” seems to allude to “a really long sentence.” But it doesn’t.

A run-on sentence is one in which the writer has joined two or more independent clauses (simple sentences) without a coordinating conjunction or a semi-colon. It doesn’t have to be a lot of words in a row.

“It’s cold I’m going inside” (five words) is a run-on sentence.

“I enjoy skiing in Colorado the snow there is wonderful” (ten words) is a run-on sentence.

As an aside, either of those joined with only a comma (placed after “cold” or “Colorado”) is a comma splice. Neither is a correct sentence. On the other hand, the following sentence (49 words) is a correct simple sentence:

During the last game of the season, Billy Parker hit the ball so hard it crossed the outfield fence for a homerun, ricocheted off a tree and across the stream, and rolled another fifty or sixty feet in a small hollow between the roots of an ancient sweetgum tree.

But now you see why I titled this topic as I did: Independent clauses? Simple sentences? Coordinating conjunction?

As a writer, you should be aware of all these things and more. NOT so you can apply them consciously them while you’re writing, but so your creative subconscious has them available to draw on.

You should know what nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are, and the uses for each. You should know what a subject is, and a predicate and an object.

In a sentence, the subject does something, the predicate (verb) is what it does, and the object is what it does it to. Or if you prefer the more graceful explanation, the subject performs an action, the predicate is the action, and the object receives the action (or the action affects the object). Asleep yet? (grin)

You should also know the difference between a phrase (a group of words that is missing either a noun or its verb) and a clause (a subject plus a verb with or without an object or anything else). “Jesus wept” is the most famous subject-verb combination (clause, independent clause, simple sentence) I can think of.

You should also know what a preposition is (a preposition always points a direction or indicates time: under, over, around, beneath, before, after, etc.) and a prepositional phrase (a preposition plus an article and a noun: for example, “over the river”.

And you should know the coordinating conjunctions. Think of the acronym “fanboys”: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Use any of those after a comma to join two independent clauses. The most common are “and” and “or.”

You should know the difference between an independent clause and a dependent (or subordinate) clause. The first makes perfect sense all by itself; the latter doesn’t.

“The rain started” is an independent clause. “I went home” is also an independent clause.

“After the rain started” is a dependent clause. If it were joined with an independent clause so both would make sense, it would then be called the subordinate clause: “After the rain started, I went home.”

By the way, that last example is a complex sentence, a subordinate clause followed by an independent clause. And you should know what a simple, complex, compound and compound-complex sentence is. Because you’re a writer.

Simple sentence: an independent clause (plus whatever else, usually one or more prepositional phrase[s] as in my example above about Billy hitting the ball)

Complex sentence: independent clause plus a dependent clause in either order

Compound sentence: two or more independent clauses, appropriately joined, usually with a comma and a coordinating conjunction

Compound-complex sentence: one or more independent clauses plus one or more dependent clauses, all appropriately joined

Of course, most of you probably already know all of this. For most of you, this is no doubt an unnecessary refresher, and if so, believe me, I’m glad.

I suppose I’m just frustrated because so many who spout advice about writing obviously DON’T have even a basic grounding in the rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation.

And some of those folks are professional fiction writers. They derive part of all of their livelihood from the English language, yet they don’t respect that language enough to get to know it. Sigh.

If you know anyone whom you believe might benefit from this knowledge (and a great deal more), you might point them toward the aforementioned Punctuation for Writers.

The slim little book thoroughly explains punctuation so you can wield it as a tool rather than fearing it as something you don’t understand. As a bonus and just as importantly, it explains the “stuff” in a grammar refresher, including all of the information in this post and much more.

There probably are some paperback copies of the second edition still available via eBay or other outlets. I might even have a few up at the house. I’ll have to look.

Either way, I suggest not paying more than $12.95 for the paper edition (I think that’s what I priced it at back in the day). Rather than paying the inflated prices some of the morons on eBay are asking, email me, or just buy an electronic version. It isn’t a long book. Even the ebook version isn’t difficult to search.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to not be a “grammar nazi.” Although writers can and should discuss the intricacies of the English langage among themselves, the citizens in the general public neither know nor care about such things. They only want to be entertained.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Ya Gotta Wanna” at (See next entry.)

See “How to Write Stories That sell” at This is the course (only $37) that Garry Rodgers recommended in his post on TKZ. I respect Garry. I might buy this just to see her advice.

See “Long-standing literary magazines…” at See PG’s take.

See “Workshop Sale and Curriculum Update” at If you’ve been thinking about taking some of Dean’s courses and wondering about the sequence, see this post.

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

6 thoughts on “The Journal: Know What Stuff Is”

  1. Couldn’t agree more about Grammarly.

    I use Autocrit – but ONLY for the counting: used ‘really’ 17 times in a scene is not something I want to let stay.

    My quirky brain does a lot of repeats when I’m writing – it is finding the easiest way to say something – so I run the finished text (not until the story is told) through AC to consider which of those reallys remain and which need a simple replacement or rewrite.

    For everything else, I have my own rules – most of them the standard ones. And aim for consistency. Readers haven’t complained. And my beta reader IS a grammar Nazi, in the very nicest way possible.

    • Thanks, Alicia. I’m thinking about trying a new one (if I can remember the name) but only for the contextual spell checker. Word has one, but it’s far from perfect.

  2. Thank you Harvey for this. I obviously have a lot to of stuff to learn but I’m not lying when I say this post explains these parts of speech better than some of the teachers I’ve had.

  3. Pardon me, Harvey, but your slip is showing (grin):

    “… the following sentence (49 words) is a[n almost] correct simple sentence:

    During the last game of the season, Billy Parker hit the ball so hard it crossed the outfield fence for a homerun, ricocheted off a tree and across the stream, and rolled another fifty or sixty feet in[to] a small hollow between the roots of an ancient sweetgum tree.”

    • Hey Russ, nice catch. That isn’t a simple sentence at all, is it? It’s a complound sentence (“Billy Parker [subject] hit [verb]” and “it [subject] crossed, ricocheted, and rolled [compound verb]”. Oops.

      Let me fix it: During the last game of the season, Billy Parker hit the ball over the outfield fence, off a tree, and across the stream for another fifty or sixty feet into a small hollow between the roots of an ancient sweetgum tree.

      Now there’s only one clause—”Billy Parker [subject] hit [verb]”—so now this is a simple sentence, despite the fact that it’s still very long at 41 words because of the addition of so many prepositional phrases.

      But yes, I also see that I used “in” instead of “into,” which in this case was just silly. That was a typo. 🙂

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