Diction vs. Syntax


Today, dear readers, I’d like to talk about two language-related terms that I often hear people use incorrectly. It’s another one of those language/grammar things that is not taught in school—or not taught well, so students never actually end up with an understanding of the terminology.


Diction refers to the words we choose to use. For most people, this can vary depending on the context and the audience. For example:

  • To your friend: There’s a freaking zombie behind you!
  • To a small child: There is a scary monster behind you!
  • To a teenager: Dude, zombie!
  • To your boss: Sir, there appears to be a zombie behind you!
  • To a paranormal research scientist: There is an undead Homo sapiens moving at a moderate pace behind you!
  • To your grandmother: Nanna, granddad is behind you!

Diction can be concrete (The spider was five feet wide and black with yellow spots.) or abstract (The ginormous spider was horrific to behold.).

In addition, diction is generally divided into the following three levels:

High or formal: tends to be fancy, avoids the use of slang, and prefers complex words.

  • Mr. Edwards slew the undead monstrosity with the sabre of his forefather.

Middle: uses correct language, but avoids overly complex words.

  • Mr. Edwards killed the zombie with his grandfather’s sword.

Low or informal: the language used in everyday conversation, tends to be relaxed, and includes slang and colloquialisms.

  • Dave totally smoked that zombie with an old sword.


Syntax refers to the order in which we place words. This is an integral part of English grammar as syntax forms the basis for sentence structure.

We all learn language long before we learn about language. Syntax is the result of studying the way language develops, so it includes all the rules that govern the way we talk to each other. Without syntax, we would all be babbling idiots. And we would also be really confused all the time. Compare the following example:

  • Frankenstein’s monster crashed through the gates, knocking townspeople out of his way.
  • Monster through the townspeople, Frankenstein’s knocking gates out of his way crashed.

 So now you know. Spread the word. And please use your syntax wisely.


Image credit: Einar Bog / PhotoXpress.com

The Complicated World of Commas


First of all, I want to say Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers! I hope the weather where you are is as nice as it is here in the nation’s capital.

And now, dear readers, the moment I know some of you have been waiting for. Today we are going to talk about commas.

Unlike other types of punctuation, the comma is the most versatile, which is perhaps what causes the anxiety some people feel about using commas correctly. In addition, not all grammarians agree on certain uses of the comma, such as the serial comma, which can further add to the confusion. Today, I will attempt to bring a little clarity to this subject. So let’s get started!

The most important thing to remember about the comma is that it’s used to indicate the smallest break in a sentence, which translates into a slight pause when read aloud. (You can contrast this with the longer pauses indicated by a semicolon or a period.) Here are a few rules to help you out:

Separating Elements

A comma can be used to denote an element in a sentence, which includes individual nouns and adjectives, appositives, and descriptive phrases. When used in this manner, you should place one comma on either side of the element, like so:

  • The sign said we had just entered Transylvania, Saskatchewan.
  • Igor, who was a strange little man, answered the door.

Likewise, if you are listing items in a series or using two or more adjectives before a noun, you should separate those items with commas, as in the following examples:

  • The doctor asked us to bring a staple gun, sutures, bubble gum, and jumper cables.
  • Frankenstein’s lab was dark, musty, and littered with limbs.

A serial comma, or Oxford comma, is when you place a comma before the conjunction joining the last two items in a series of three or more elements. Some people frown about this use, but the idea behind a serial comma is to remove any ambiguity. Check out both versions of the following example:

  • The doctor had invited Gertrude, Marcus, Helga, his mother and his ex-wife.
  • The doctor had invited Gertrude, Marcus, Helga, his mother, and his ex-wife.

Note how the serial comma clarifies the meaning. In the first example, it kind of sounds like Helga is the doctor’s mother and also his ex-wife. In the second example, it’s much clearer that those are actually three different people.

Which and That

Which and that is probably a whole other post, but this often trips people up, so let’s look at it briefly. The word that is often used to introduce a restrictive relative clause, which contains information that is essential to the sentence. Restrictive clauses never require a comma. On the other hand, the word which is often used to introduce a non-restrictive relative clause, which could be left out without affecting the sentence. Non-restrictive clauses do require a comma. Here are examples of each:

  • The brain that Igor placed in the monster’s head was the final step.
  • The experiment, which had cost Frankenstein dearly, was a success!

Independent and Dependent Clauses

Commas are generally used to separate independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction. (If the clauses are very short, it’s okay to leave out the comma.)

  • The lights in the castle flickered wildly, and the monster sat up.

In dependent clauses, a comma should be used when the dependent clause comes before the main clause. However, if the dependent clause follows the main clause, a comma is not used. See the following examples:

  • When the monster broke free from his restraints, Frankenstein’s audience began to scream.
  • Frankenstein’s audience began to scream when the monster broke free from his restraints.

Exclamations, Introductions and Direct Addresses

Commas are also used to set off words that are exclamatory (Oh, crap!), introductory (Well then, we’d better fetch our pitchforks.), or in direct addresses (Dr. Frankenstein, your cadaver has gone AWOL.).

And that, dear readers, is an overview of the comma. If you still find yourself confused about when and where to place a comma, my suggestion is to read the sentence out loud. Where did you pause naturally? That’s probably where the comma should go.


Image credit: chrisharvey / Photoxpress.com

Holy Potatoes! It’s an Interjection!

Mad Scientist

Psst! Hey! Over here!

Now that I have your attention, let me introduce today’s grammar topic. We’re going to look at one of the three parts of speech most people can’t remember when asked to recite all eight off the top of their head — which are prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. Today we’re talking about interjections.

As you might have already guessed, an interjection is a word, phrase or clause added to a sentence to communicate emotion (interjections are in bold).

  • Ouch! Igor yelled when he touched the live wire.

Interjections don’t usually interact with the other parts of speech, preferring to stand alone — or interrupt, as their name suggests. This independence allows us to use more or less any part of speech as an interjection, as evidenced in the title of this post and the following examples:

  • Hideous! (adjective)
  • Fiend! (noun)
  • Help! (verb)

While interjections often appear as exclamations followed by an exclamation mark, it is not always the case. An interjection does not always require an exclamation mark and it can appear at the beginning of a sentence or as an aside mid-sentence, as in the following examples:

  • Oh no, Doctor, I think we put in the wrong brain!
  • Doctor Frankenstein, ahem, I think it’s alive.

An interjection is something that occurs naturally when we speak. They often reflect the colloquialisms of modern language.

  • OMG! I can’t believe it worked!

It’s common to use interjections in many forms of writing, especially dialogue and poetry, but you should exercise caution when dealing with more formal writing. For example, if you are writing an essay on how to genetically engineer a monster from “salvaged” body parts, you probably shouldn’t say:

  • When setting up your secret laboratory, for the love of God, do not disclose the location to anyone that is not on your research team.

It would be better to leave the interjection out when the writing style requires more formality.

Finally, while almost any word can serve as an interjection, there are some words that only ever serve as interjections, such as ouch, phew, ugh, and oops.

  • Oops, the monster has escaped!


Image credit: Andrey Kiselev / Photoxpress.com