We’re in the communications business. And part of being a good communicator is minding your p’s and q’s. In this blog series, senior copywriter Mike Mathieu gives grammar lessons you might actually remember next time you’re communicating something important.

Tip #1: The Hyphen and the Adverb

Pop quiz: Is the Grammar Gram an “extremely-useful” resource or an “extremely useful” one?

If you said “extremely useful” (with no hyphen), you’re right. Here’s why.

When you add “-ly” to a word, you’re making it an adverb.

Your hat is so awesome it’s ridiculous. It’s a ridiculously awesome hat.

An adverb’s job is to modify verbs …

I really need to get a hat like that.

… and adjectives.

I bet it’s incredibly hard to find one, though.

Sometimes, an adverb may modify an entire clause.

Seriously, where can I get a hat like that?

Now. A hyphen’s job is to show that a pair (or cluster) of words is doing something special together. And the reason we don’t hyphenate a pair like “extremely useful” is because, when adverbs are paired with adjectives, they aren’t doing anything special. They’re just being themselves.

Wait, is that a hat? Or do you have an awesomely shaped head?

There are certain adverbs that, in certain instances, do need hyphens.

No offense. It was a well-intentioned question.

As do nouns + participles (conjugated verbs ending in “-ed” or “-ing”), in certain instances.

I try not to make shape-oriented assumptions. Ever.

But “-ly” adverbs + adjectives do not take hyphens. They fit together exactly like grammar intended.

Cool, so it’s a hat. A newly acquired, make-your-friend-crazy-with-jealousy hat. Good for you.


Tip #2: False Appositives

When you immediately follow one noun phrase with an equivalent or echo of the first noun phrase, that second noun phrase is called an appositive.

Welcome to Space Academy, a school among the stars.

We place a comma between an appositive and its preceding noun phrase. Think of this comma as saying “in other words” or “also known as.”

You’ll be studying under my mentor, Holly Blaze.

Because it’s just an echo, you can delete an appositive and still have a complete grammatical sentence.

Appositives frequently involve people’s names, because we’re frequently clarifying who’s who in our sentences. But often we think a name is an appositive when actually it isn’t.

Blaze is famous for saving fellow astronaut, Jim Wingman, from a black hole.

The commas in that sentence are incorrect. Why? Because if we delete Jim’s name, we don’t end up with a complete grammatical sentence.

That means Jim isn’t an appositive; he’s some other kind of noun phrase that is critical to the sentence. In this case, he’s the direct object of the verb “saving.” That makes “fellow astronaut” an adjective phrase describing him. We don’t put commas between adjectives and the nouns they modify, so this should be written Blaze is famous for saving fellow astronaut Jim Wingman from a black hole.

Wingman had approached the black hole because a droid, RBX-99, had fallen into it.

Here, the commas are correct. “A droid” is a noun phrase serving as the subject of the verb “had fallen,” which means “RBX-99” is serving as an echo, clarifying what we mean by “a droid.” We could remove the droid’s name and the sentence would still hold together.

Luckily, flying ace Holly Blaze swooped in and saved him. (The droid was already gone, though. Pity.)

Holly ain’t no echo. She’s the subject of the sentence, and “flying ace” is an adjective phrase describing her. No commas.

So let that be a lesson to you. Do put commas between equivalent noun phrases. And don’t put commas between adjective phrases and noun phrases. (Also, don’t let droids play near black holes.)

Photo credit Max Garçia

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