Thursday, March 7, 2019

Comma or no comma, that is the question



Hello again, dearies! It's been a while since I've had a few moments to visit. Life has a way of taking us in down paths we had not planned. Ah, but I am here now, and a grammatical issues has again surfaced that needs to be addressed. What is it? The lowly comma.

Back in November of 2016, I addressed the Oxford comma, that pesky little piece of punctuation that often inspires great dispute. Having proven the necessity for that very important comma to avoid ambiguity and/or raised eyebrows, I want to bring to your attention some other uses for this all-important punctuation.

More and more, books, both traditionally and self published, are deviating from long established rules put into place for the purpose of clarity and flow. Our authority will be The Chicago Manual of Style Seventeenth Edition,  recently updated by the University of Chicago to address changes in reading habits, research options, the use of  new technologies that facilitate writing and publishing, and, of course, the punctuation that keeps our words, thoughts, and messages understandable. In this article, however, we will limit its vast resources to the proper use of the comma in short expressions and phrases, as well as its function in appositional structures.

Let's consider the following examples from a single story that demonstrate how the comma should and shouldn't be used in these cases.

Oh, my!
Oh my!
Oh, well!
Oh well!
Oh god, Jack.

One problem with the above examples is the lack of consistency. Writers and editors need to be consistent in following a publishers' punctuation guidelines. If a work is self-published, the writer should determine correct usage beforehand and apply it uniformly throughout the writing process.

Which comma usages are correct? According to CMOS 17 (6.33 - 6.35), informal narrative or dialogue does not require the comma after the introductory oh if the sentence or phrase is exclamatory. That indicates the second and fourth expressions are correct, which means the first and third are not. I can't find a direct reference to the fifth expression, but the end punctuation does not make it an exclamation. Let's reason on it. The phrase includes a noun of address: Jay (not god). The fact that oh god and oh my god are common expressions, however, creates another exception to the comma rule. That lovely little bit of punctuation is not required. (CMOS 6.35) Side note: whether or not an author refers to a specific deity or simply uses a common phrase should determine capitalization of the word god—but we will leave the proper use of capitals for another visit.

Before I leave, I want to say a few words about another use of commas that is often misunderstood: appositives. (CMOS 17, 6.28) Consider these examples. Nonrestrictive phrases or clauses should be set off by commas. Julia's son, Malcolm, accompanied her to the ballet. Julia has one son, so his name is additional information not required to identify him. Therefore, it should be enclosed by commas. On the other hand, necessary information, called a restrictive appositive, is not set off by commas. Her daughter Mira also attended the performance. Mira is one of three daughters, so a restrictive appositive is required to identify which daughter joined them. No commas. (If whether the appositive refers to the only one or to one of several is unknown, it is considered to be restrictive and is not enclosed in commas. Example: John's son Eric was in an accident. It is unknown whether Eric is John's only son or John also has other sons.)

Alas, duty calls. I must be going now. We have plenty of posts about the humble comma here on the Blood-Red Pencil, such as Shelley Thrasher's tips on Using Commas with Adjectives, and we'll explore more uses of the comma on a future visit. Until then, dearies, remember that a well-turned phrase is always in style.

Style Maven Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her through websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

13 comments :

  1. Today's cartoon on Mystery Fanfare is the Oxford comma. ��

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    1. Proper use of the lowly little comma has been the topic of more debates than any other form of punctuation. Thanks for stopping by, Liz. :-)

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  2. I am in camp Oxford comma. Clears up otherwise criminal statements. :)

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  3. I insist on the Oxford comma in my own work but am very iffy on some of the other uses. A cotnent editor recently noticed that my short story had three uses of "too" at the end of sentences but that I had used a comma before the "too" only once. I haven't looked up the rule yet...but whatever it is, I broke it at least one time. :D

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    1. That's content editor...my fingers are not connected to my brain this morning.

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    2. When I am editing a book that my little publishing company will publish, I insist on the Oxford comma. When writers plan to independently or self-publish, I will yield to the requirements of the publisher they are using.

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    3. Both comma and without comma are correct before too.

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  4. Thank you for a refresher course on the lowly comma, without which our writing would be incomprehensible!

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  5. Excellent point, Yvonne. Incomprehensible writing is the last thing we want to give our readers. Thanks for you comment.

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  6. Thankfully (comma) my editor is a CMOS maven, so she corrects my errors. I never use a comma before too or either or other like words at the end of a sentence because I don't pause when I say those words. I might be wrong, but that's my rule. I always use the Oxford comma (no comma) though.

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