Let’s get down to work. For many students the first major test of knowledge and ability is likely to be an essay based on a topic that covers work already done in the classroom or in lectures. But, in addition to reinforcing the key points learned so far, the function of the essay is to build on the basic foundations laid previously.
The essay writer, therefore, is setting out to achieve two developmental goals – order and structure knowledge already gained, and extending that information laterally to broaden understanding of the subject. By compelling the essay writer to go looking for additional and interesting information, the teacher wants creative input from the student. This creativity comes in two ways.
Effort applied in seeking new and relevant information familiarizes the student with the specific resources available in his or her own institution, in other libraries or in other sources about that topic area. The degree of imagination the student exhibits in this search may tell the teacher a lot about his or her involvement in the subject, and more generally, about his or her academic potential.
Here comes the difficulty, however. If you are going to communicate by way of the written word you have first to master whatever shortcomings you may have in essay writing technique and writing style. Most students reaching university level or in tertiary training should have mastered the fundamental principles of spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Now here’s a minefield of little dots and dashes. If a teacher launches into a diatribe about clauses and relative clauses and the strict rules of punctuation (especially commas), little else will get done for the year. There are some simple principles, however, that will lift your game to the point where your exact meaning is not compromised by the adjoining words.
A well-written essay is dependent on punctuation to clarify what is being said and make it easier for the reader to absorb. If you have ever seen a legal document of old without a comma from start to finish, you will grasp how valuable punctuation is. But we must also punctuate to communicate precisely and more effectively, not just to conform to a set of rules. One can sometimes break the rules where the result makes the point more forcefully – as advertising copy-writers are wont to do, sometimes with less than pleasing results.
So, the primary purpose of punctuation is to make your mean¬ing exact, and the common comma is a vital tool. Some teachers, despairing of teaching the proper use of commas to students who have never learnt formal grammar, use rules of thumb – like putting in a comma wherever you would like to take a breath. That is not good enough. A comma separates ideas and propositions in a statement, a sentence, and keeps like with like so that the reader knows precisely what is intended by the writer.
Commas also serve to break up a flow of ideas into bite-sized pieces so they can be grasped more easily. But don’t fall into the trap now occupied by many journalists of putting commas exactly where they don’t belong, thereby destroying comprehension and making nonsense of the flow of words.
If you are still unsure, you can always resort to the time-worn technique of reading your work aloud. You should discern the need for commas that way (even if you don’t need to take a breath