2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 55,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 20 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Let’s eat Grandma! How Punctuation can Save a Life









According to most English textbooks and instructors, the omission or misuse of commas is the #1 sentence-level error in writing. Many beginning writers overlook the importance of a correctly used comma, or insert commas as an afterthought where they think they need a pause. Commas, like any punctuation, have rules of use, and failing to follow the rules can lead to, what may appear in your sentence, to be death – or just really awkward and embarrassing sentences!

As the title of this post illustrates, a missing comma can alter the meaning of an otherwise straightforward sentence. With a correctly placed comma,

Let’s eat, Grandma.

it’s understood that we don’t really want to eat Grandma, but that someone is requesting that Grandma eat.

A comma prevents readers from grouping words together in ways that don’t fit your intended meaning, as in the following example:

Did the bear eat John?








I hope not! With a comma, we’re asking John if the bear has eaten:

Did the bear eat, John?

In the following example of a missing comma, you can see how it could create a disturbing image:

All those who like to cook and eat my wife just started a new blog.

There must be a lot of people who like to cook and eat this person’s wife!

With comma: All those who like to cook and eat, my wife just started a new blog.

Comma in a List of Items

What’s for Dinner?

Your mother is making broccoli chicken, peas, and carrots for dinner. So is she making one entrée and one side dish? Or is she making one entrée and two side dishes? Or two entrées and two side dishes? Confused? You might have an idea what food you will be eating, but unless you understand how the sentence is punctuated, you might not know how to interpret the menu.

In the example, broccoli chicken has no comma to separate the words, so it is one dish, like they serve at the corner Chinese restaurant. But peas and carrots are separated with a comma, which indicates that instead of one side dish of mixed peas and carrots, you’ll get a side of peas, and a side of carrots. Make sense? Punctuation can change the meaning of your sentences, and if you’re not careful, you might say something you don’t really mean.

While we’re on the subject of eating, the following faux pas was printed on a magazine cover:

Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.

I doubt Rachel Ray has cooked her family or her dog! Once we add the missing commas in this list, we’re relieved:

Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.

That sounds better, doesn’t it?

Below is another example of how failing to place commas in a series can have shocking effects:

Caution! Watch for parasailing horses and buggies on the beach.

I’ve never seen that, have you? But there still seems to be some confusion.

Notice the item – or items – “horses and buggies.” Without a comma to guide us, we don’t know if “horses and buggies” are one unit together like this:










or if they are two separate entities, like this:








Commas have rules of usage. There should be no guessing when or where to use any kind of punctuation. Feeling the need to take a breath or pause in a sentence does not necessarily mean you need a comma, but a comma does mean you need to pause.

Now go eat, Grandma!


(Some examples from http://www.ucalgary.ca/uofc/eduweb/grammar/course/punctuation/3_4j.htm)




Introduction to MLA


MLA stands for Modern Language Association. MLA citation style is generally used in the humanities and liberal arts fields. MLA style, according to MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, ”represents a consensus among teachers, scholars, and librarians in the fields of language and literature on the conventions for documenting research, and those conventions will help you organize your research paper coherently” (xiii).

Did you notice that at the end of the previous quote, some roman numerals were inside parenthesis before the period? This is referred to as an in-text citation. This refers to the page in the text where you can find the quote. In this case, the quote is from the introduction, and often roman numerals are used in intros.

A Little History

According to the editors of the MLA Handbook, MLA published a style sheet in 1951, and since then has been refining the style to help academics and researchers compose their writings and research (xiv). (Note that even though the previous sentence is not a direct quote, but paraphrased, it still includes a parenthetical citation. Credit must be given to ALL information taken from any source, or the writer could be accused of plagiarism.)






As you compose your research paper, you’ll be asked to include outside sources on your topic. This research might take the form of print sources, such as books, journals, newspapers, or magazines. You may also want to utilize online or web sources, such as an organization’s website, an online magazine or newspaper, or even Wikipedia. If you are not sure what types of research are permitted, ask your instructor.

Types of Sources


A research paper will have two types of sources – primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are original information from an author who has experienced or witnessed what he or she is writing about. They might include original documents or artifacts.

Secondary sources usually analyze and interpret primary sources.  Secondary sources are not original, and are often several steps removed from the event. A journal article that analyzes someone else’s research is an example of a secondary source. Learning how to locate, analyze, and integrate secondary sources into your writing is one of the most important skills you will learn as you write your research paper. You will need to not only learn how to assess other’s research, but you also must articulate your own ideas clearly.

In-text Citations

In MLA, any information you take, whether directly quoted or paraphrased, must be cited in the text of your paper immediately after the information in what is known as a parenthetical citation. What goes in this parenthetical citation depends upon the type of source information used. This parenthetical citation must coincide with the Works Cited page, which is the reference page at the end of your essay. MLA uses what is known as the “author-page” citation, which means you’ll include the author’s last name and the page number where the information came from. If you mention the author in the text, you will omit it from the parenthetical reference.

Example: Human beings have been described by Kenneth Burke as “symbol-using animals” (3).

Since the author’s name is mentioned in the text, only the page number is given.


Human beings have been described as “symbol-using animals” (Burke 3).

In this example, the author’s name is given in the citation, as it is not mentioned in the text.

Many other sources, though, may not list an author, and most web-based sources list no page number. Refer to the current  MLA Handbook or Purdue Owl for information on different types of citations when lacking an author, page number, or both.

Works Cited

The works cited page is the reference page to your paper. It will alphabetically list every source used in your paper (both primary and secondary), whether you have directly quoted, paraphrased, or summarized. The works cited pages gives publication information on source material so that a reader, if interested, can easily locate the entire source.

All items on the works cited page should correspond with all in-text citations in the paper. This means that each entry should match the way you have cited it in the text of your essay. For example, if the Works Cited has an entry with the last name of “Adams,” the paper should have either an attributive tag to Adams, or Adams should be in the parenthetical citation, with a page number if a print source (online sources often do not have page numbers).

MLA requires specific formatting, so always refer to your handbook or visit Purdue Owl to check your entries.

Never Guess

Learning how to locate, analyze, and integrate research into your compositions can be time-consuming and often confusing. You should never guess how to cite a source. Refer to the MLA Handbook or visit Purdue Owl online for any questions you may have on in-text citations or your works cited page.



First to Final: How Many Drafts does it Take?

ResumeDraftsWhen assigned to write a paper, many student writers begin their process with their first draft, hope to do a thorough revision, and turn in the final draft for a grade. However, the process of writing a quality college-level essay may take many more revisions than students are prepared for. How many drafts are enough? How many are too many – or is it even possible to have too many drafts?

Students who aren’t familiar with the “writing is a process” model think it possible (and maybe it was in high school) to crank out a quality paper at 2:00am the night before a due date. This effort might get a strong writer a passing grade, but most of us need several drafts to produce the quality of writing needed for more complicated college writing assignments. I have never been able to sit in front of a blank computer screen and churn out anything worth reading on the first try. In fact, it might take me 5, 6, or 10 revisions before a piece is ready to be read by an audience.

The word “essay” derives from the French essayer, “to try” or “to attempt.” First drafts will often be an intro that leads to nothing, a conclusion with no beginning, or a middle with no engine or caboose, or simply some scribbled notes. First drafts are just that – a first attempt. Too many beginning writers believe it possible to compose a full first draft – an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion – do a little tweaking, and call it done. But does this produce the best possible finished product? Probably not.

If the thought of writing several drafts feels overwhelming, consider breaking the drafting process down into manageable parts. Hopefully, you have an outline of where you want to go with your paper. Consider drafting the introduction first, and take a step back from the essay. Let the paper simmer for a few hours or a day, thinking about how you want to proceed. Come back at another time to flesh out the body paragraphs. Stop and take another step back. Coming to each writing session with a set of fresh eyes (not to mention a fresh brain!) will help you see more clearly.

In these initial draft stages, don’t overwhelm yourself with too many concerns, such as worrying about grammar and punctuation at this point. Trying to correct as you go will only slow your writing process down. Save this for the final stages of the revision process.  Once your first draft is complete, revisit the body paragraphs to consider global concerns, such as if the essay has a thesis, maintains focus, and is organized logically. How many revisions will this take? That’s anybody’s guess. Maybe 3. Maybe 10. Don’t worry so much about the number of revisions it will take. Each draft will get you one step closer to the finished product.

Share your writing process with us.
How many times do you revise a piece?
When do you know it’s done?