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September, 2011

  1. Comma Catastrophe

    September 28, 2011 by asteffann

    For my entire adult life, I’ve been told by other people that I don’t need to use a comma to separate the final two items in a series, providing they are connected with “and” or “or.”

    Take, for example, this sentence:

    I made the sandwich using jelly, peanut butter, and marshmallow.

    Lots of people nowadays would say that you don’t need a comma after peanut butter. I would argue that this incorrectly implies you are using jelly and a concoction of peanut butter and marshmallow (swirled together) on your sandwich.

    Um, YUCK.

    Diana Hacker discusses this very debate on her Rules for Writers website.

    However, thanks to the wonders of social media, today I saw the best illustration of my point that I’ve ever encountered on  In this case, omitting the comma creates an even worse misunderstanding than just lumping the final two items together!

    I also learned that my favorite kind of comma (as described above) is called an Oxford comma.  You learn something new every day!  Not even Hacker told me that.

    So next time you’re tempted to cave to pressure and omit the final comma in a series, you can stop and think about Hacker, strippers, and JFK and Stalin (whoops!).  Just say no to unintended pairings!

  2. Unplug

    September 25, 2011 by asteffann

    In my first advertising job, I was fortunate enough to work in the presence of a seasoned copywriter named Luke Sullivan. I was just a lowly assistant account executive, but he was already one of the agency greats and I knew it. Eventually, I moved on to advance my account management career in another city, at other agencies.  One day, after nearly ten years, I left the business and became a teacher of writing.

    On a chilly night in 2009, I was looking for a book in a deserted section of the George Mason University library, to support an article I was writing for graduate degree.  To my surprise, I pulled a book off the shelf that was authored by Luke Sullivan. Of course I read it cover-to-cover with glee.  I recognized so much of what he described in the book, and I really appreciated his wisdom about how to write great ads and how to work with people of all types.

    I’m telling you all of this because Luke recently wrote a post for his blog Hey Whipple that touches on a topic so many of us can relate to. He suggests learning to turn off distractions when we’re writing…for any reason.  We think we can multi-task but, as he argues, that tendency can really just be a disguise for all kinds of procrastination. Next time you’re blocked on a paper, try pulling out the earbuds, turning off the smartphone, and closing Facebook. You might surprise yourself with how much you can achieve!

    Check Luke Sullivan’s blog out – especially if you’re thinking of a career in marketing or advertising…or anything, really. He’s just smart.

  3. Adapting Your Style

    September 22, 2011 by asteffann

    It’s natural to feel frustrated when bosses and professors ask you to write in a way that doesn’t feel natural to you.  Many students argue that, if everyone their age talks a certain way, it’s fake to have to change their speaking and writing style to be more formal, just to suit the expectations of people at school and in the workplace.  The reality is, however, that how you communicate at school and in the workplace can affect how people view your potential to excel.

    When I was a young professional in the early nineties (just starting out) I had to work really hard to get ride of the “valley girl” speak discussed in this brief article I found on CNN.  Like the woman who is the subject of the article, I constantly said “like” and ended some of my sentences on “up” notes, making it sound like I was both young and unsure of myself.

    Writing in an overly colloquial style can create similar problems in the workplace and in your classes.  As a result, I try to stress to all my students that their conversational ways are not wrong – the are just not appropriate for academic and business writing!