Say hello to The Comma, the most common punctuation mark next to The Period (hi!). They're extremely fun to use and they have a way of adding flavor and flow to our sentences, particularly long sentences. This is writing 101, right? So why am I bringing this up? Lately, in things I've been reading, the comma seems to be thrown in any random place, even in published books. While I'm sure this post isn't going to make this little pet peeve of mine go away, I felt I had to say something today.
First of all, what exactly is a comma, anyway? Depending on the language, it could be any given thing, but we'll stick with the English rules here.
Comma - a punctuation mark used to indicate the separation of elements within a sentence, to prevent ambiguity within a sentence.
(Don't look at me, that's what the dictionary's say'n ... )
For me, I've always treated the comma as a break, a pause for breath (unless the comma is being used in a list), just in the same matter we pause for breath while speaking to others in person, but we still have more to say. On paper, it's easy to forget where that break belongs (and I'm totally guilty of that when I type up a lot of words at once). And, sometimes, it's not a matter of placing the comma in the wrong place that gets to me, but not using one when it ought to be there:
- When I went to school I often walked with my friends.
*shivers* That's like nails against a chalkboard, for me.
- When I went to school, I often walked with my friends.
*wipes forehead* Phew ... Much better.
These are the the most common comma issues I've seen lately:
To understand where a comma needs to go, we have to understand the clauses (dependent or independent) being used in our sentences.
Dependent - includes a subject and a verb, but can't be used alone.
- Grabbing the leash, I went outside to walk the dog.
Independent - includes a subject and a verb, and can be used alone.
- I went outside to walk the dog.
Something I've picked up is that we can identify a dependent clause with a dependent marker word. When attached to an independent clause, it turns into a dependent. Here's an independent clause:
- Bobby went to the store to buy a stick of gum.
Good for you, Bobby. Now let's add a dependant marker word:
- As Bobby went to the store to buy a stick of gum ...
Well, what happens next? The thought isn't complete.
- As Bobby went to the store to buy a stick of gum, he tripped.
Poor Bobby ...
Now let's talk about lists and the serial comma (also known as The Oxford Comma). This is when you have a series of items, places, or persons (nouns, more or less). See, I totally just did one: items, places, or persons. In journalism, or through the Associative Press Guide, you wouldn't use that last comma (i,e,. or persons), but we're novel writers, so don't worry about that. You wouldn't, however, use a serial comma during an action line or a series of events, like this:
- Jill found the key, unlocked the door, and ran into the hall.
Too many commas can slow the action and disturb the flow.
- Jill found the key, unlocked the door and ran into the hall.
That'ah girl, Jill! We're routing for you now!
Of course, there are moments when you will want to use the serial comma to prevent confusion, like in this following sentence:
- Sarah had lunch with Chris, a fireman and an engineer.
Hold up! Is Chris a fireman and an engineer, or are the fireman and the engineer different people? For all we know, Chris is a fireman and an engineer, but if that's not the case, add that extra comma.
- Sarah had lunch with Chris, a fireman, and an engineer.
And then there's the use of coordinate adjectives, two adjectives joined together to describe a noun. We wouldn't want to do this:
- The small rundown bakery smelled of cookies.
What we'd want to do is this:
- The small, rundown bakery smelled of cookies.
I'll have some of those cookies, if you don't mind ...
This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. There's ton more examples I can bring up, but you don't have all day to read this, I'm sure. In the end, it's about how the comma makes you feel when you use it. Does it give a breather at the right moment? Is it dividing two clauses in the same sentence? Making proper use of the comma will do wonders for anyone's writing, and they will keep their readers from stumbling over confusing sentences. Get it? Got it. Good!
Ever see misused commas in books? Have you used them? How do they trip you up? What are some examples I failed to mention?
I'm David, and punctuation saves lives ...
Addendum - a blogger that I have mad respect for recently covered this topic, and I might add, in a much better manner than me. Visit Andrew Leon's post to read more (while I reconsider this "pause for breath" advice that I should of put more thought to). Cheers!