Friday, June 28, 2013

My Thoughts, Such as They Are, on Commas

What is it about commas? 
Periods are seldom ignored, so why is such a useful punctuation tool as the comma the object of such disdain? Not only editors, but writers, too, argue the worth of commas--sometimes writers even argue with their editors…Imagine.
Articles are written and re-written, debating the necessity of commas, especially the pros and cons of the "Oxford" (serial) comma (wikipedia); a wittier take on it is here
Most writing programs ignore punctuation altogether, which makes sense--after all, you're supposed to have taken at least English 101 before becoming an author, right?
An editor friend recently emailed me about a manuscript he's currently working on, writing that it was "well written, thank God, but like a lot of folks, the author doesn't really have a handle on commas. I am well aware of the 'open' style, which usually means 'no commas,' but sometimes they are necessary."
I agree wholeheartedly. The error I mark the most on manuscripts is the necessary addition of a comma. If I have to stop and re-read a sentence in order to figure out what you were trying to say, that usually means it needs a comma. Or even two. You don't want your readers to be slowed down by having to decipher confusing sentences. 
The good news is that there's an easy way to find 90% of the "missing" commas in your writing. Read it aloud. Better yet, talk into a recorder, then play it back and look at the manuscript as you listen. You'll hear when there's a very brief "stop" or teensy pause, or, sometimes, just a slight change in tone--those audible hints mean that you might need a comma. 
(Don't be afraid--if you insert too many, your diligent editor will happily take them out!)
Okay, enough about that--I'll get down off my soapbox.
By the way, an author I recently worked with, Gayle Carline, has a new title out, "From the Horse's Mouth: One Lucky Memoir." If you like horses, you'll enjoy getting to know Snoopy. His story is "Black Beauty" for the 21st century--but with a lot more laughs!
Ask for it at your bookstore, or find it here on Amazon (available for Kindle too).
hasta pronto!


  1. When Tameri Etherton was my beta reader for The Hot Mess, she declared me the Comma Queen. Not in the good way. In the "Dear God enough with all the commas" way. As clean as I (think I) write, commas are my Achilles heel. Now you know how afraid I was to hand you my manuscript - I could envision you thinking, "What the hell is it with this chick and commas?"

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the common sense approach to commas! I'm just now trying to wade my way through a story whose author seems to think commas have been taken out of punctuation! :)

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