Friday, September 21, 2012

Aspiring Advice: Pause, To The All-Powerful Comma!

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!


  1. This must be comma lesson week - second post about commas in just a couple days!

  2. Love posts about commas! More examples please! :)

  3. And don't ever, ever, EVER use a comma to join two sentences together without a connecting word. EG: 'I went to the store, I bought some milk.' I see this in published stuff lately (and not just self-published stuff: no sirree). It makes me want to scream.

  4. Great examples. And, of course, comma usage varies depending upon the grammar style you're using. The key is consistency.

  5. Love this post. I have a hard time with commas. For some reason I use them more as place stoppers whenever I stop to think about what I need to write next. Which means they're always where they shouldn't be and never where they should. I'm learning though. Hopefully I didn't do it wrong in this comment.

  6. Commas trip me up at time. Thanks for the reminders! I'm definitely a fan of the Oxford comma.

  7. Lol, I love that picture. The comma is so important.

  8. I put commas, wherever I feel like it. I'm just, a rebel that way.

  9. Lol, luv the pic! I find it all depends whether the audience understands the message. If I can make a sentence work without a comma, I won't use it, but otherwise I put them in. Also, it's more acceptable now to use them in place of semi-colons. No joke:)

  10. I really don't like it when there are commas in the wrong places in books I'm reading. I try to make sure I don't misuse them--but I have a tendency to use them more often than necessary.

  11. I love this post :) I recently did my speech for school on punctuation, and I included a rather long section on the comma, as well as a fair amount on the apostrophe. For some reason, I find this stuff really fun!

  12. Great post - it's amazing what grammatical errors you pick up even in published books. Love the picture, too.

    Thanks for the follow!

  13. Sadly I have misused them, but I'm getting better.

  14. I enjoyed your little lesson, especially the snarky parts. I fear commas and my mistakes with them. Then, like you, after I'm so careful and recheck a hundred times, I read a published book that throws the rules I try to follow out the window.

  15. lol! I'd hate to eat grandma. Great lesson/advice David!

  16. Love this post! Comma misplacement is also fingernails on the chalkboard for me. Hmm...I might also blog about commas and link to your post. I could talk about commas ALL DAY. (Grammar nerd alert!)

  17. Yeah, I read Andrew Leon's post this week about commas - although he railed against using them for pauses. It's good to think about them though. I tend to use them without thinking sometimes and have to be careful myself.

    1. I appreciate the heads up, Rusty. Dang. If I had known Andrew had written such a perfect post about commas this week I would have covered something else. I took some serious notes, too. :)

  18. Hey, it's just good to see that other people are talking about the, um, issue.
    Hi, I'm Andrew, I use commas...

    But, yeah, you talk more specifically about the whole independent/dependent clause thing than I did, so that's good. I think, really, if people understood the difference, there would be less comma confusage (yes, I just made that word up, but that's okay because I'm a writer, right?). I've been considering a clause post...

  19. Nails on the chalkboard - definitely. I'm the same way. Thanks for the reminder of all the comma's glory. ;)

  20. Um, your blog isn't loading properly for me... eek!
    Loved the post (which I could read via my reader only) about commas and how they save lives, though ;)

  21. Thanks for the enlightenment! I will certainly refer to this post most often to assist me on my journey through writing. I never know when I am putting too many commas or when I'm not putting enough. Perhaps it is better to just have someone else catch my mistakes than myself. :P

  22. I love how you ended on a comma-ical note!
    Thanks I needed this~

  23. I loved this -- I understand all the comma-otion now!You're right, the improperly placed comma can kill the best sentence and of course, the missing comma is the worst writing crime. (Did I get the commas in the right places in that sentence?) Editing and revision - the twins I need to entertain way more than I do!