Tag Archives: comma splice

Chaos Theory, Commas, and Basic Punctuation #amwriting

Punctuation and the fundamentals of how to use it can be confusing for many new writers. Most grammar books and style guides are difficult to understand and seem intimidating. What follows is only a quick guide, a “How-To Guide for Basic Punctuation.”

The many convoluted laws of grammar can make the literary universe a chaotic place. Commas can be tricky because some applications are open to interpretation. However, the most basic laws of comma use are not open to interpretation.

Two things we never do:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the pauses differently.

Commas and the fundamental rules for their use exist for a reason. If we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

The Fundamental Laws of Commas:

Commas join two independent clauses. The independent clause is a complete stand-alone sentence.

  • Boris worships the ground I walk on, but his adoration tires me.

Dependent clauses are unfinished and can’t stand on their own. They should be joined to the sentence with a conjunction.

  • Boris worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee.

You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:

Comma Splice: Boris kissed the hem of my garment, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

The dog has little to do with Boris, other than the fact they both adore me. The same thought, written correctly: Boris kissed the hem of my garment. The dog likes to ride shotgun.

Comma splices? Don’t do it! The universe will grind to halt, and everyone will die, and it will be your fault.

Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. That would create a nuclear holocaust of the literary persuasion.

The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to Boris and his adoration of me.

I have said this before, but semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.

Remember: Semicolons join independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone, but which relate to each other.

Your best bet is to avoid using them except under extreme duress as they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences.

But what if you absolutely, positively have to use a semicolon, or your skin will melt? Trust me, it won’t happen, but there are rules for using this type of punctuation, and the wise author will follow them:

Two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should be

  • complete sentences that relate to each other
  • if they don’t relate to each other, make them separate sentences and reword them so they aren’t choppy.

Two separate ideas done wrong: Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment; my boot was in his face.

The first sentence is one whole idea—Boris adores me. The second sentence is a completely different idea—my boot was someplace inconvenient.

Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of my boot is important: Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment, but my boot was in his face.

I don’t dislike semicolons as some editors do, but I generally try to find alternatives to them. I think they are too easily misused because people forget the simple rule:

Semicolons (;) should be used only when two stand-alone sentences or clauses are really short and relate directly to each other.

We like people to understand exactly what we mean, so we ALWAYS use the Oxford Comma, also known as the Serial Comma.

If there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used as it would be used in a list.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Colons (:) head lists but are never to be used in the literary narrative, so YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion when we are listing things. You’ve all seen the memes—and you’ve heard the arguments.

On a personal level, I do love cooking my pets and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas. Argue against the Oxford comma all you want–you will never change my mind.

I want to thank my parents, Ralph and Maggie Johnson and Poseidon.

Although the dog thinks I’m a goddess, I am not really the daughter of Poseidon. Parents, when named, are a single unit. A comma after Johnson would eliminate confusion.

We use a comma after most common introductory clauses.

After dark, Boris would change into his bat form and go hunting for insects.

To wind that up, commas tame the chaos that our words can become. They are the traffic signals, signifying a pause or a joining.

>Periods, also called full stops, end sentences.

In dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quote marks. A comma follows the spoken words, separating the dialogue from the speech tag, and the period (or question mark, or exclamation point) ends the sentence.

“I agree,” said the editor.

If you follow these simple rules, your work will be readable. 

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#amwriting: Two punctuation wrongs that don’t make a right

semicolon memeToday, I am revisiting independent clauses and how NOT to join them. This has been discussed at length elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll keep today’s discourse short and to the point.

You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuumthe Dreaded Comma Splice:

Comma Splice: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu and I like it, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

Same thought, written correctly: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu, and I like it. The dog likes to ride shotgun.

Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to the color of the car.

A semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.

Remember: Semicolons join independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone, and your best bet is to avoid using them except under extreme duress as they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences.

But what if you absolutely, positively have to use a semicolon, or your hair will fall out? Trust me, it won’t happen, but there are rules for using this type of punctuation, and the wise author will follow them:

Two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should be

  1. complete sentences that relate to each other
  2. if they don’t relate to each other, make them separate sentences and reword them so they are not choppy.

Two separate ideas done wrong: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.

The first sentence is one whole idea—they want to go somewhere. The second sentence is a completely different idea—it’s telling you the time.

Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of time is important: We should go to the Dairy Queen soon. They close at eight, and it’s nearly half past five.

If time is the issue in both clauses, and you feel like you absolutely MUST use a semicolon or you will explode, say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

I generally try to find alternatives to semicolons, but I don’t dislike them, as some editors do. I do think they are too easily abused and misused, and should not be used if you are in doubt.

Comma splices—don’t do it. The universe will grind to halt, and everyone will die, and it will be your fault.

Semicolons—use only when two stand-alone sentences or clauses are really short and relate directly to each other.

Comma Splice Meme

 

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#amwriting: Commas: Morsels of madness or necessary evils?

commaNothing gets certain people jacked up more than misplaced commas. Why this rabid hysteria? Personally, I have no energy to waste, so I’m selective about my frenzies.

But commacentric grammarians do raise a few salient points. Commas and the rules for their use exist for a reason, and if we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

I am a decent structural editor, but I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about commas.

However, I do know a couple of things:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the narrative differently.

Commas are the rules of the road for writing. They are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find their pauses between clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses.

One rule I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

What? That’s not what I was taught in school!

The Chicago Manual Online gives this example (and I quote):

He didn’t run, because he was afraid.

He didn’t run because he was afraid.

Douglas Adams quote, split infinitivesIn the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary. The main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but fear was not the reason he did so.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains this well. “You don’t automatically put a comma before the word because, but sometimes you need a comma there to make sure your meaning is clear.”

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

Another thing I had to unlearn:

  1. Do not automatically place a comma before the conjunction ‘and.’

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are actually standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! Mrs. Downing very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses, and she was right.”

I’m sorry, but Mrs. Downing probably  explained that. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and.’ Did I just contradict myself?

Sort of.

Think of it like a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Oh YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion! You’ve all seen the meme:

serial commas meme, martha stewartOn a personal level, I do love cooking, my pets, and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas.

One of my favorite personal failings is the notorious comma splice. Apparently it’s bad form to join two independent clauses with a simple comma. This error is called a comma splice.

I have it on good authority that a comma splice will not cause a tear in the space-time continuum. But since this breach of humanity occasionally sends commacentrics into a frothing frenzy, we will use the conjunction and give these poor wretches a break.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English.”

chicago manual of styleCommas and their proper use can drive you crazy when you are trying to get your work in order. And quite frankly, the rules are a little confusing.

Consistency is critical. UK usage can vary from US usage in some ways. Find a style guide that you can understand and consult it. Once you have a guide you can work with, use those suggestions consistently in all your work.

I use the Chicago Manual of Style for my work because I am a US citizen, and for creative writing, this is the most comprehensive manual and is what publishers and editors use. If you are strapped for cash, you can often buy secondhand copies of this manual through Amazon.

Commas can easily get out of control for me because I have a tendency to hit the comma key whenever I pause in my thinking when I am in the first draft phase. At that point, I am more concerned with just getting the words down than I am form and style.

However, proper form and style must come into play when we get into the later drafts. Using established protocols for punctuation is important if you want your readers to understand what you meant when you wrote that amazing piece of literature.

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