Monday, November 3, 2008

Editors edit commas...and more

Nowadays commas are on the decline in contemporary prose. Almost an endangered species. And there are many differing opinions about the use of them. This will not be an “official” essay on the correct use of commas. Dear lord, I would dare not presume to be of such authority to instruct you as to where, when, and in what order to include, place, and feel correct in your use of the useful, often necessary, but more often than ever before in literature shunned punctuation, the comma. I just intend to lay out some thoughts of my own on the subject and share some experiences I’ve had dealing with the ponderous and mighty question, “to comma or not to comma?” over the past several years.

From Maryann - I was going to edit your opening paragraph, then I realized it is a joke. I hope everyone gets it.

When I was writing my first manuscript intended for publication, I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie), I was living in the same house with a young man, a recent college graduate, a theology major and English minor. He instructed me that commas were to go everywhere. That’s what his English professors had taught him. Place them after any designation of time. For instance, like right now, use the comma. He instructed me on the usual separation of a series of related nouns, or adjectives, or actions, as in the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the house, and the berating, drinking, wife beating jerk of a guy, of course, as well as a virtual text book full of other instances in which the comma should be inserted as a matter of good form in correct writing.

(Revision of previous paragraph by Maryann)
When I was writing my first book , I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie), I was living in the same house with a young man who was a recent college graduate. He had minored in English, and he told me that commas were to go everywhere. That’s what his English professors had taught him. Place them after any designation of time. For instance, like right now, use the comma. He instructed me on the usual separation of a series of related nouns, or adjectives, or actions, as in the President, the Vice President, the Speaker of the house, and the berating, drinking, wife beating jerk of a guy. It was like living with a virtual text book full of other instances in which the comma should be inserted as a matter of good form in correct writing. (See how much smoother that reads, Marvin?)

Marvin: Yes I do.

Well what a crock that turned out to be.

I sent the ms in for submissions. I got a few bites and finally got a pub house to take the book on their production schedule. Then the manuscript was sent in to the pub house’s editor. She emailed me back, informing me with about a million highlights that my ms was waaaaaay over-comma’d . “Please remove 90% of them”) and why.

(Revision by Maryann)

She emailed me, informing me with about a million highlights that my manuscript was waaaaaay over-comma’d and why.

Why?

Because today’s readers want to decide for themselves when to pause. They don’t want some presumptuous author telling them when to take a breath, when to stop, when to do anything. Write the story. I’ll read it the way I want to read it, thank you very much. All your commas are distracting me.

From Maryann: Really? I've never heard this.

Marvin: I hadn't either until my last editor enlightened me.

I have writer and good friend colleague who has been writing books for decades. She and I discussed this dwindling use of commas phenomenon a while back. It’s gotten rather confusing to lots of authors, when and where to put the commas. Even from one pub house to the other, from one editor to the other, what they want to see is different. She quipped that here lately when she sends in her ms to the editor she just leaves all the commas out, sends along a page full of commas and tells the editor to “put ‘em where you want ‘em!” LOL. Well I don’t go that far, but I must admit I am a bit gun-shy about the excessive use of commas. I thought I had the modern day use of commas thing down when I sent my last ms in, Owen Fiddler. Nope. Got it back from my editor with a note telling me she just couldn’t read it until I took about a million commas out. But I think I’ve got a pretty good grip on it now. Let me show you.

Here’s an example of “old school” use of commas in prose.

John, after his lunch, went to the bedroom, wanting to take a nap. He slipped off his loafers, his shirt, and his pants, and after saying his prayers, he fell fast asleep.

That’s the way your English professor still wants you to write it, and he/she will give you an A. But here’s the way most modern day editors that know their readership’s preferences want you to write it.

After lunch John went to the bedroom wanting to take a nap. He slipped off his loafers, his shirt and pants, and after saying his prayers he fell fast asleep.

See how much faster and smoother that reads? And you can pause anywhere you want, if you want to. Your choice, I’m not demanding that you stop anywhere. Hey guys – we live in a fast paced society. People got things to do. They email, chat, IM, twitter, myspace, facebook, yahoo group, blog, raise kids, have hobbies and full time jobs. Diurnal book reading time is cut down these days to precious few minutes or short hours per day for most people. They’re like, “Don’t bog me down with commas – run the story. Ain’t got a lotta time here.”

From Maryann: I agree that the second example is easier to read and there is a great debate between using correct punctuation and acceptable punctuation. However, not all publishing entities are following the more relaxed trend, so authors will still run into editors who will ask for changes. It would be so much easier if there was a standard that all publishing houses would use. The temptation to follow the example of your friend is strong. Just let the editors at the publisher decide where to put the commas.

It’s a sign of the times. Commas are going the way of the dinosaurs. The majority of Americans today are baby boomers. The Hippie generation. They are natural born despisers of authority. They don’t like being told that they have to do anything, let alone be told by some authoritative author when and where they should take a pause in their reading. So calm down with your commas, authors. You can still use them and in certain cases must use them appropriately, but don’t raise your editor’s or reader’s ire by the overuse of them. And “overuse” is a term that is being redefined and constantly revisited as our society and its book readers need to keep pace with the zip of contemporary life.

From Shelley: As a former English professor and hippie, I straddle the fence on this issue. When editing nonfiction, I tend to follow traditional rules, and when editing fiction I use fewer commas.

But clarity is always my bottom line. Both authors and editors should use this small tool as a way to say, "We intend for you to pause here, but if you don't want to, that's your choice." Hippies can be as reasonable as anyone. Marijuana is very calming. :)

Marvin: Ha! Yes indeed. And I agree with clarity as the bottom line goal of effective prose.

Our publishing house relies on The Chicago Manual of Style as our bible, so we do have a well-thumbed standard. We strictly enforce the use of the serial comma, yet our chief copy editor tends to under-comma.

When I began to edit for this company, I relied on my academic training and classroom experience. But slowly I've calmed my comma usage. Having one foot in the stately past and the other in the zipping present is a comfortable stance for me.

From Dani: I would also add that it's more appropriate to put the book titles in italics rather than ALL CAPS, and also to include all of the book title in lowercase italics. Or is it lower-case? Or lower case? Depends on the house style and editor, I suppose. Further, wouldn't "manuscript" be better written out, or at least abbreviated as "ms." rather than without the period"? Please leave us your opinion in the comments.

------------------------------------------------
Written by Marvin D Wilson, author of-
I ROMANCED THE STONE (Memoirs of a Recovering Hippie) And OWEN FIDDLER (A Modern Day Parable)
Marvin blogs at Free Spirit: http://inspiritandtruths.blogspot.com/ Twitter him at: http://twitter.com/Paize_Fiddler

10 comments :

  1. Let me pause here to comment.

    I am an ardent supporter of the comma,,,but when I read older books (circa 1940-1960) I notice an abject LACK of commas in the texts. Sos much so, that it nearly drives me bonkers to read the stories aloud. I'm constantly thinking, "Sheesh, he shoulda put a comma there!"

    The trend toward more aggressive comma usage must have emerged in the 60s or 70s (or the 60's, 70's) when I was in school because I was taught to use commas liberally.

    On another topic entirely: If I were editing this blog, I would insist that the authors use more eyeball friendly colors for the text. I'm only 44 (45 on Friday - send me chocolate, please), but the purple and red caused me all manner of reading difficulties, even after I made the font significantly larger. The deeper colors are pretty, but painful!

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  2. I enjoyed this post. It was like listening in on a private chat between writer and editor.

    Quite fun.

    As an old English major, I've had to train myself to leave out excessive commas. On the other hand, my second major specialization was in Oral Interpretation, so I'm quite good at recognizing the needed pauses where it's often a good idea to put a comma.

    Either that or the two degrees just cancel each other out and I'm comma goofy. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Groovyoldlady (love that moniker, btw - lol) Reading just now I have to agree and apologize, the colors are somewhat difficult to read. Problem is, when you compose in the blogger, you are seeing the colors against a white background so it's difficult to know how they will come off when published on the black background. The purple I chose for my comments are next to impossible for me to read. Live and learn.

    And Helen, you KNOW you are comma goofy! (smile)

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  4. The colors are truly a challenge. We need a color editor that's for sure. I tried to change them to lighter, but Blogger won't let me now. It'll have to be a lesson for all of us - on which colors work best in the original draft.

    And that essay could use a few MORE editors, seeing it in print today. Yikes! A major revision wouldn't hurt it. We should make Marv re-write it as an exercise and republish it later. I challenge you to submit an un-editable re-write. Or is that rewrite? In other words, let's see something "perfick".

    Groovy, I think commas were popular before the sixties, but the mellow hippie attitudes and anti-establishment mindset probably had something to do with commas going bye-bye. We've been confused every since. In more ways than one. ;) And Happy Birfday - here's an eChocolate for ya!

    Dani
    http://quickest.blogbooktourguide.ever.com

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  5. my boss de commad a report for work recently. Makes sense now.

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  6. I've always found Trask's Punctuation to be the simplest guide on comma use. According to Trask there are only four specific uses for a comma: Listing, Joining, Gapping, and Bracketing. If the comma you want to use doesn't fit into any of those categories then it is not a comma you should be using. Very straightforward really.

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  7. I do my best and hope I'm putting the commas in the right places.
    Most of the time I know, but sometimes I get confused.

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

    ReplyDelete
  8. Sounds like another comma post in our futures, Elle! Take it away....

    Dani

    ReplyDelete
  9. Marvin,
    I wonder if we have the same friend or if the page full of commas is a saying of more than one author.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm delighted that my ruby red slippers landed here on your blog. Ingenious blog title and wonderful graphics! Whether on the receiving or giving end of those "red marks," I'm intrigued by your blog.

    There is no need for me to pause and ponder whether to comment on your essay regarding commas. Like you and others, I've noticed a definite decline in the amount of acceptable comma usage.

    I shall look around now and return again.
    -gel

    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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