Tag Archives: Commas

#amwriting: Commas

Commas and their usage have arisen in my conversations with clients again lately, so I felt it was time to dust off a piece I wrote  last year on managing them. If you have seen this post already, there is nothing new here–commas and their usage don’t evolve with our changing language.

Since the usage of commas is slow to evolve,  why are they so difficult to figure out? And conversely, why do some people get so jacked up over misplaced commas?

The rules are a little confusing at first because there are several exceptions. Remember, for the casual reader, misplaced commas are like road signs gone rogue–one minute everything is fine and the next you are going the wrong way down a one way street and don’t know how you got there.

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 some 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.
  3. Do not put a comma after a conjunction. If needed, commas go before conjunctions.

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.

In 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.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

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: I love cooking my pets and my family. 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.

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.”

Commas 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 tend 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.


Sources and Attributions:

Large portions of this post were first published by Connie J. Jasperson © 2016-2017 under the title, Commas, Morsels of madness or necessary evils? on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on January 25, 2016. It has been re-edited and recycled.

Commas, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, ©  http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas/faq0018.html accessed 08-02-2017 The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition text © 1982, 1993, 2003 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style Online © 2006, 2007, 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style is a registered trademark of The University of Chicago.

The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, Commas, ©2010-2017 http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/search/site/commas accessed 08-02-2017

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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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Is it damn fool, damnfool, or damned fool?

colloquialism memeOne of the more interesting things about being an editor is the amazing amount of time you spend stopping what you are doing and doing a little research. This is especially true if you are editing a piece that has a lot of colloquialisms in it.

Fortunately, some colloquialisms have made it into the Webster’s Dictionary, and the rest are out there on the internet somewhere.

Let’s consider the question of if we mean damn fool, damnfool, or damned fool:

According to the Urban Dictionary

  • A person who is extremely foolish. Their actions are not only irresponsible to themselves, but can possibly be harmful towards others.
  • If a guy tries and talk you out of using a condom, he is a damn fool. (You can’t make this stuff up–you have to go to the internet for it.)
  • Did you see that damned fool? He was swerving all over the road. (end quoted text)
And just for fun, lets see what Wiktionary has to say:
  • damn fool (adjective)
  • damnfool 
  1. (informal) Contemptibly foolish. (end quoted text)
He was a damned fool.

Ellbert Hubbard memeHow I see it:

  1. He was a damned fool. (I just cursed him to hell.)
  2. He was a damn fool. (He was contemptibly foolish)
  3. He did a damnfool thing. (He was contemptibly foolish and I will curse him to hell.)
Now this can be tricky if you are unsure which of these damnfool things the author meant, so this is where I insert a comment asking the author what kind of a damned fool she is writing about.
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What other fun little “OMG I have to stop and look this up” things do I play with when I should be working?
  • I love looking up Pagan rituals, or indigenous peoples’ religious rituals.
  • I love anything to do with history, and exact dates.
  • Ooh! Ooh! Let me look it up on a map!
Yep–looking things up is part and parcel of the fun. I’m just not as keen on looking up where to properly place commas–the rules make my head hurt.
 .
So let’s talk commas and where to stick ’em, or better yet, where NOT to stick ’em. I found a wonderful website that has a handy-dandy list of comma don’ts phrased in simple language that did not make my eyes go numb: The Proper Care & Feeding of Commas
 .
chicago manual of styleImproperly installed commas can wreak havoc in a paragraph. This is because they are punctuation: “…the act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs in written matter to clarify the meaning (of a sentence.)” (quoted from Google)
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Commas are there to separate clauses and to make sentences understandable. Consistently used according to the accepted rules, commas make it so that every English-speaking reader understands what you have written. We don’t put them in to indicate to the reader where we pause or take a breatheveryone pauses and breathes differently and what makes sense to you will not make sense to someone else.
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These are the same rules for everyone, which make our work understandable in Brisbane, Houston, London, Hong Kong or Seattle. But the rules in the Chicago Manual of Style (my go-to manual) are often ambiguously phrased and are hard to remember. SO, when checking on simple points, I love this website for a quick list of comma dos: Your Dictionary: Comma Rules
 .
Dialect and local sayings play a huge part in contemporary work–sometimes I get a piece that was written by a UK author.  Perhaps it is an Urban Fantasy and it will have all sorts of words I have never heard of: again, I go to Your Dictionary: Common UK Expressions. This  is also a problem with American dialects and local slangs–the internet is my friend! Texas-talk is “a whole nuther thang” and sometimes more difficult to follow than Cockney EnglishHowdy Get Rowdy
 .
It is an editor’s job to do a certain amount of research whenever a question arises in the manuscript to ensure his comments will help the author clarify ambiguous and hard-to-understand areas. Having fun surfing the internet looking up obscure and interesting facts is just one of the perks!
.
keep-calm-and-say-you-fool-you-damn-fool

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Clauses and Pauses

commaCommas–those mysterious, curving morsels of punctuation designed to contain clauses, but which, when used  irresponsibly, wreak havoc in the ordinary life of the author.

According to the wonderful website, Get it Write, there are two specific situations that call for the use of a comma before the word and:

The first instance is created when there are  three or more items in a series. This mark of punctuation is called the serial comma which I covered in a post called Comatose Ambiguity, (see link here)

“The second situation occurs when “and” is being used to coordinate two independent clauses. An independent clause—also known as a main clause—is a group of words that has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence. In the following example, the independent clauses are in brackets:

  • [Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years], and [today he is an accomplished performer].

“The use of the comma would also apply when any of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) join two independent clauses.

“Notice in the next example that we do not use a comma before “and” because it does not join two independent clauses but merely joins two verbs:

  • Miguel took piano lessons for sixteen years and today is an accomplished performer.

“Here we have only one independent clause—two verbs (“took” and “is”) but one subject (“Miguel”).” (Quoted directly from Get it Write, Sept 8, 2014)

I know this will be difficult for some to swallow, but commas do not serve as pausing places for the reader to breathe.  They join together clauses–short sentences–that would make your narrative sound choppy if they were left to stand by themselves. Take these short sentences, for instance:

Rall had seen to it that John sparred daily. He cut a swath through the ranks quickly. Even Garran had no legitimate complaints. He still needled John at every opportunity.

Each sentence  can technically stand alone, but they are boring and choppy that way.

Rall had seen to it that John sparred daily, cutting a swath through the ranks at such a rate that even Garran had no legitimate complaints, although he still needled him at every opportunity.

Another good online reference is Brian Wasko’s Write at Home Blog. His article called 7 Ways NOT to Use a Comma is good stuff. Of particular interest to this post on using commas for pauses: “The comma-by-ear method doesn’t work — at least not consistently. I inevitably inserted unnecessary commas all over the place.”

One rule he mentions (that is one of my personal weak areas) is rule number four (and I love his comments): 

4. Don’t use a comma to connect two clauses if the second clause is subordinate (i.e., dependent).

Frowny face:  Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined, because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers.

Smiley face: Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers. (end quote)

I would have shot straight to sticking the comma in front of ‘because’ because it is a good place to pause. (Yep. I said because because.) (Snicker.)

Using commas for pauses is an invitation for comatose mayhem. Consider this: Every person reads aloud at a different rate and with a different cadence. If you indiscriminately throw your commas in wherever YOU think a pause should go, your prose will be filled with strange bumps in the road, because your reader won’t be pausing where YOU think they should. No matter how much of a control freak you are, you can’t force people to read the same way you do. This is why we follow common rules when using punctuation.

Commas separate independent clauses from each other and also from introductory words. In other words, they divide little sentences from each other in order to form compound sentences. 

Oh, the editorial agony.

 

 

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