Writing Wednesdays

Comma Love

Today, I’m going to talk about almost everyone’s bane—no, not the synopsis, but the little-bitty comma.

I didn’t come into the writing profession an expert on the comma, not that I’m one now. However, after extensive time with two separate college level grammar books and studying some reputable websites/blogs on the matter, I feel fairly comfortable with commas. Occasionally, I still sometimes struggle with true grammar, but that is getting better, too.

I’m also going to debunk one of the misconceptions out there among unpublished writers, which is one of my pet peeves about publishers.  Punctuation is important, and comma placement is very important.  If you follow these simple rules, hopefully, you will understand commas, too.

Okay, I know those paragraphs were a little dramatic, but I was trying to get as many uses of the comma in there as I could, so you could see their placement in actual text.

So, without further hesitation, I’m going to rip it apart and explain why each comma is there.

Today, {Commas should be placed after any reference of time or order: today, next, first, second, now, a moment later, later, days later, then (although it has become common practice to omit the one after then)}

I’m going to talk about everyone’s bane—no,{place a comma after no and yes when they are at a beginning of a clause/sentence}

not synopsis, {closes the comma around the contrasting phrase} but the little-bitty comma.

I didn’t come into the writing profession an expert on the comma, {this comma is used to set off a dependant clause} not that I’m one now{dependant clause}.

However,{anytime a sentence is started with however, therefore, of course, otherwise, furthermore, nevertheless, so a comma should be placed after it}

after extensive time with two separate college level grammar books,{this comma sets off a proportional phrase. If a sentence starts with as, if, of, out, in, into, to, inside, after, outside, like, not, with, while, before, although, because (when used at the beginning of a sentence), etc., you need a comma at the end of the phrase.}

I feel fairly comfortable with commas. Occasionally, {anytime you start a sentence with an adverb you should set it off with a comma.}

I still sometimes struggle with true grammar, {this comma separates two conjunctional independent clauses. I’ll explain further below.  And, but, or, nor, for, so, yet are conjunctions}

but that is getting better, too {use a comma to offset the adverbs—too, also, moreover, therefore, however, etc.  If they fall in the middle of a sentence, for example: “but that, too, is getting better” the commas are required to set off the word.  But in “getting better, too.” the comma is optional. The choice is yours!  For me, I was taught to use the comma, so I do.}

I’m also going to defunct one of the misconceptions out there among un-published writers, {this comma is used to set off an unessential clause. They usually begin with which, who, whom , but there are exceptions to this rule, if the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, don’t use the comma.} which is one of my pet peeves about publishers.

Punctuation is important, {here is another conjunction used to join two independent clauses} and comma placement is very important.

If you follow these simple rules, hopefully, you will understand commas, too. {commas after the proportional phrase, the starting adverb, and the ending adverb too (the last one being optional.}

Okay, {place a comma after any sentence starter like okay, well, hell, damn, already, all right, no, yes, ah, oh, yet, etc.}

I know those paragraphs were a little dramatic, {joined independent clauses}but I was trying to get as many uses of the comma as I could, {another joined independent clause with the conjunction so} so you could see their placement in actual text.

Here’s more explanation of when you use commas with a conjunction:

WRONG:  “He smiled at me and I felt my heart speed up.”  Both of these clauses could be complete sentences.  “He smiled at me. I felt my heart speed up.”  Granted, it sounds chunky, but that’s not the point.  The point is these clauses are two separate thoughts—independent clauses.

RIGHT: “He smiled at me, and I felt my heart speed up.” Here’s an example with but: “He smiled at me, but I didn’t feel a thing.”

The times you don’t use a comma between a conjunction:  “He grabbed the folder and opened the file drawer.”  HE is doing both of these actions. “He smiled, grabbed the folder, and opened the file drawer.”  Here HE does three actions either at the same time or in succession so you need the commas because it’a list. Here’s an example with but: “He picked up the file but frowned at the title.”

Use a comma with a participle phase (usually they start with ING words). Such as:  “Going to the file drawer, he smiled at me.” OR: “He smiled at me, going to the file drawer.”  In this example: “going to the file drawer” modifies HE. “I noticed you walking to the store.”  Here you wouldn’t use a comma because to do so would change the meaning. “Walking to the store, I noticed you.” In the first example, “walking to the store” modifies YOU. In the second, “Walking to the store,” modifies I (as in the above example with HE).

Series are tricky, sticky, funky things…Use commas when listing a series if the modifiers are coordinate. Example:  “The red, white, blue flag…” this is a list of adjectives modifying “flag”.  Another trick is to say and between them “The red and white and blue flag,” or if they can be reversed “The blue, red, white flag,” use commas.

If the modifiers are non-coordinate, you don’t use a comma: “The dark brown leather couch.”  Here you wouldn’t use commas— “dark” modifies “brown”, “dark brown” modifies “leather,” and you never use a comma between the last modifier and the item it’s modifying.

Editors and agents expect our submissions to follow the rules of punctuation, grammar, and usage—known collectively as style. The guide most publishers follow is the Chicago Manual of Style. There are also online resources and college level textbooks based on this book of style.

I know you’re thinking most publishers don’t follow these rules. You’ve seen commas left out in the places I’m saying they belong in published works. Well, here’s where that myth comes into play that I want to debunk—different publishers have different rules (house rules on style), but these rules don’t apply to unpublished authors. Editors and agents look at grammar and punctuation (style) the same way a human resource manager might look at the way someone dresses for a job interview.

Sure, if someone shows up in jeans and a t-shirt at an interview for a professional job that requires business attire, she may still get the job if her qualifications are the best. However, her choice of wearing her favorite old jeans and beer-logo T-shirt might turn off the interviewer before he/she even asks about the applicant’s qualifications. In this case, the interviewer may decide before he/she even talks to her that she isn’t worthy.

The same is true with using good English style in an author’s submissions. If in the first paragraph there are several style mistakes, that dream agent/editor might decide might be too much work, especially if the story needs other content editing.

I hope this helps and didn’t just confuse anyone further. Of course, I only touched the tip of a very big iceberg, but I think I hit the easy fixes. Below, I attached several on-line sources that are very good.

For your information, I almost majored in English in college to become a high school English teacher. I loved grammar in high school. However, I decided that, because of my dyslexia and the fact I’m an extremely slow reader, being and English teacher may not be the best option. So, I ended up taking social studies education instead. I was also a history buff. After three years of substitute teaching hell, however, I changed careers. Now, I’m a medical assistant working as a medical secretary… And hoping my next career change is to full-time writer….*Grin*

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/comma-with-too.aspx

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/

http://www.grammarbook.com/

http://www.nationalpunctuationday.com/resources.html (this site lists about twenty different websites/books on punctuation, grammar, usage, and style.)

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14 thoughts on “Comma Love

  1. great post, Cera! I usually catch my comma errors on re-writes…The bad thing is, I understand the grammar rules but after a 10 year career in TV (journalism) – in which you place commas for breathing purposes – I still write that way. Blerg.

  2. D'Ann Linscott-Dunham says:

    I detest commas. Another pet peeve of mine is the prepositional phrase. Everyone does them now, too. It’s become ok, but I always fix them when I read or crit.

  3. Linda says:

    Great post, Cera! Thanks for taking time to do this. Like most people, I’m comma challenged, but getting a tad better. This goes in my keeper file for when I stumped, which is more often than I like to admit. LOL

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