Friday, September 26, 2008

The Curse of Commas

Commas are single the worst thing about being an editor. How can such a tiny little piece of punctuation cause so much time-sucking anguish? The rules are both inflexible and squishy at the same time.

Rule One: Two independent clauses separated by a conjunction need a comma. So the following sentence (with two subjects: he and it) is punctuated correctly with a comma.




He started the car, and it made a noise.

This next sentence (with only one subject: he) is also punctuated correctly without a comma.

He started the car and drove around town for a few hours but soon got bored and went home to clean out the garage and mow the lawn.

This drives writers crazy because these examples make no visual or auditory sense. Nobody wants a comma in the first example, and everybody wants to put a comma between “hours” and “but” in the second example.

Here’s the squishy part. Technically, the comma in the second example isn’t necessary, but many editors and publishers allow authors some discretion in using commas to direct the reader to pause. So you’ll see it both ways.

Here’s more squish. Nonfiction writing is more formal and requires closer adherence to the rules, while in fiction the style is to be more “open.” This means in novels, rule number one is frequently ignored. But every book publisher has its own in-house rules. And every newspaper and magazine has its own style. No wonder most writers have given up trying to get commas right.

Then there are introductory clauses, which are completely discretionary. In an academic paper, you’ll see a comma after even the shortest introductory phrases/words:

In time, the relationship between the two variables…

In fiction, you’ll see no comma after long and complex introductory phrases:

On the morning after the big explosion in the airport hanger he packed his suitcase and headed…

Where is the logic? As an editor and writer, I try to follow the rules and consider the genre, but my first obligation is to the reader. If a comma makes the sentence easier to read, then I put it in. If a comma slows the reader down for no reason, I take it out.

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L.J. Sellers is a brilliant writer and editor who can help you get your manuscript into great shape. She prefers scintillating mystery and thriller fiction by famous authors who will pay her outrageous sums of money for her sage opinions, but she'll edit any genre and work with authors to keep her services affordable.

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8 comments :

  1. I agree totally with your closing conclusion. There's leeway that didn't use to be there when it comes to commas. And, IMO, that's good. Sometimes there could be so many commas that the words would feel constricted. And sometimes you need commas in order to make sense of the sentence.

    Thanks for your expertise, LJ.

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  2. I used to think commas were easy. Now I kind of hate them. I don't know who to follow any more. I keep hearing commas are used less and less, but when I try to get away with it, the commas get put back in.

    Morgan Mandel
    www.morganmandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. Good points, L.J. It was good to see the concrete examples. One rule -- or guideline -- I was given along time ago when it isn't clear grammatically that a comma is needed, read the sentence aloud. If you want to take a breath at some point, you either need to revise the sentence to make it shorter, or figure out where a comma belongs to five it a "beat."

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  4. And I've read the opposite from purists, Maryann. That the place for the "breath" is not necessarily a good and correct place to insert the comma. Let the debates rage on!

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  5. I am very thankful for the leeway, since commas are my bugaboo. When it looks like my page has too many commas, I take commas out. When it looks like it doesn't have enough, I put comma in! :-)

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  6. Thanks for the great insight LJ. Mark and I are both trained for formal writing (tech papers) and find the 'new' rules for fiction to be more than a little 'squishy'. The Chicago Manual of Style is not always helpful in the land of commas. Now I understand why that is.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Interesting piece, L.J. I got my start in the newspaper business and spent some time on the copy desk. I know the rules, but to me such rules are mostly good for academic debates. When writing fiction, I prefer to err on the side of how it sounds, how it feels. What I hope to do is get the reader to pick up on how I'm trying to convey the story.

    http://murderousmusings.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  8. oh dear
    apparently I have much to learn about the use of commas...
    and my teachers were so proud of my good punctuation way back in high school!
    these days I punctuate everything with...
    how's that for driving you crazy?!

    well, I don't do it in my fiction (ps is that last sentence correct)
    sheesh now I'm looking over my shoulders for the comma police
    ;)

    http://aureliachrysalisemerging.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete

The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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