Sentence Makeover #2

The sentence:

"When I started out I fell for this, it never led to paid work."

This is an error in writing and not in spoken English. The problem is the punctuation only. Everything else is cool.

What's bad about it?

The only problems are the punctuation marks between the clauses. One is missing and one is wrong. To understand these problems, you have to understand English clausal structures and their corresponding punctuation rules.

English has two clause types: Independent and Dependent. These names refer to the clause's ability to stand alone as sentences. A clause--for those who've forgotten--is a group of words that contains a subject, a verb, and an object if required by the verb. This, in fact, is the basis for English sentence structure, and is almost never taught to students of English, either native or non-native, which absolutely infuriates me. But I digress.

Let's look more concretely. Below, in order, are an independent and dependent clause:

The cat moved.

Because the cat moved.

The first is a clause because it has a subject and a verb. The verb, move, doesn't require an object for this definition, so it's a complete sentence.

The second is a dependent clause solely due to the word because. Because literally connects two ideas, therefore it requires two clauses, or subject-verb groups. In other words, if you're connecting things, by definition, there is more than one, and that makes one dependent on another, a rule. Think of words like because, when, as, due to, and others used similarly, as needing connection, and therefore being dependent. Good? Good.

Now that we understand the two types of clauses, it 's important to realize how they're connected. Two independent clauses must be either separate sentences, or connected with a FANBOYS, which means For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So. These are the words that 'allow' you to connect two independent clauses. There is one more cool little ace in the hole, and that is the semicolon, ;. This magical piece of punctuation allows two independent clauses to be connected without a FANBOYS. Dope. You can see an example in the first sentence of the first Sentence Makeover.

A dependent clause needs connection to an independence clause via a comma, (sometimes. I'll address this later.) Before we get to that, though, lets stop and reconceptualize. Two independent clauses need connection via semicolon (;), but a dependent clause and independent clauses need connection via comma. Therefore, think of the semicolon as the comma's big brother. A more definitive comma, if you will. Ok, back to the connections.

Imagine we connect a dependent clause, for example,when it rains to an independent clause, such as I bring an umbrella. We can imagine combinations in our head, but let's slow down and recap why these two are dependent and independent clauses:

"When it rains" is dependent because the word when relates to another time, or action. It is by nature comparative, and therefore connective. Got it?

The other clause, "I bring an umbrella," is independent because it has a subject I and a verb bring, and that verb's requisite object an umbrella. It has all the parts and no connections: it is independent, and the other isn't because of its connection. Boom.

English--but not all languages--allows either of these two clauses to come first. There is a rule to note, though. Let's see if you can figure it out from these two grammatically correct sentences below:

I bring an umbrella when it rains.

When it rains, I bring an umbrella.

Hopefully you noted the order of the two clauses. And this functions rather simply and similarly to the way a computer does.

Check this out. When you think about a thing you want to do, it is an action. This action may keep you alive, feed you, or in some other way carry about your business of carrying on your gene pool, or not. But it is an action, a verb, the King Louie of grammatical parts. And that action is carried in the main verb, the matrix verb, as it's called. I bring an umbrella is the center of the thought in this example.

The other part, when it rains, is not really your action. It isn't really an action at all, truth be told. It's an effect or a cause based solely on the other clause, and not central. It needs something else for importance: your action. It's dependent, therefore.

Here's a way to conceptualize the above rules, for the linguist in you: When the central thought comes first and is followed by the secondary thought, i.e. in the correct order, no comma is needed. When the secondary thought comes first, and therefore out of order, "extra time" will be given-- in the form of a comma--to allow for ordering.

So what's that got to do with our sentence? Let's go back to that first sentence:

"When I started out I fell for this, it never led to paid work."

It makes two errors. First, the When I started out clause is dependent, and not connected to the independent clause--the next clause--with a comma. Then, the I fell for this clause is independent and abuts another independent clause but is connected incorrectly.

If we break down the clauses by type, it becomes simple:

When I started out -- DC

I fell for this --IC

It never led to paid work --IC

Why that's bad:

These comma errors are so common, that I wouldn't be surprised if the democratization of grammar changes the 'rules' and soon makes them acceptable. I offer these tips to give peace and sanity and consistency to those who wish to write according to current convention.

A fix:

A template for connecting clauses by comma is:

DC, IC; IC or DC, IC and IC

The best fix, therefore, would be either:

"When I started out, I fell for this; it never led to paid work."


"When I started out, I fell for this and it never led to paid work."

I like the second. It's got rhythm to it.

God speed.