Monday, October 28, 2013

Commas Are Not The Antichrist

I feel like ranting about commas, so I'm doing that for Grammar Police today.

Commas give lots of writers fits. I know this. The rules governing some commas make their use optional. I also know this. The problem is, I've seen a trend in fiction of eliminating commas as a way to streamline the proseto the point it breaks rules and stumbles readers.

Not a good idea.

I agree that writers should avoid using unnecessary commas, especially in fast-paced scenes; but, for Pete's sake, don't take an indiscriminate hatchet to them!

The English language needs commas.

Let me repeat: The English language needs commas.

Why?

  • As I mentioned in my post about the demise of the comma-before-too, commas often signal meaning.  
  • Commas frequently eliminate confusion.
  • Commas create a pause so the reader doesn't run out of breath.
  • Properly placed commas keep the grammatical structure sound.

If you don't believe commas signal meaning and eliminate confusion, compare these two sentences.

I'd like to introduce my parents, Bill and Leona.
I'd like to introduce my parents, Bill, and Leona.

In the first sentence, the person speaking is introducing two people, her parents whose names are Bill and Leona. In the second sentence, the speaker is introducing four people, her parents (1 & 2), a man named Bill (3), and a woman named Leona (4). The only thing that changed was the addition of a single comma.

(I know most people would not introduce their parents without saying their names. 
I was making a point about commas and sentence structure.)

If you want to look up those comma rules, the topics are appositives (Ex. 1) and separating items in a series (Ex. 2).

Here's another.

I chose soup and salad and pizza was my sister's choice.
I chose soup and salad, and pizza was my sister's choice.

That one's self-explanatory.

One thing I've been seeing more and more often is writers leaving out the comma after introductory phrases. The rule says we may do this if the phrase contains three words or less, but even then, dropping the comma may not be wise. We need to leave it in if taking it out would create confusion.

Until the spring rain clouds will not come. 
Until the spring, rain clouds will not come.

How can you safely reduce the number of commas?

By adjusting sentence structure to keep them to a minimum. This can be as simple as flipping the location of weak and strong clauses.

If you don't like tomatoes, tell me now.
Tell me now if you don't like tomatoes.

Breaking complex sentences into shorter, independent ones is another simple solution.

Commas may be the bane of your existence, but they are needed and their placement matters. Whatever you do, before you publish, get your manuscript properly edited.


###

Rant over.
Thanks for visiting. :)


To tweet about this post, click here.


34 comments:

  1. Bravo! BRAVISSIMO! And all the other bells, whistles, and hoopla associated with a great post.

    You know, with people leaving out necessary commas (such as the comma before "too"—I learned that you always put one there), it has made me second guess my comma usage. We've needed a post like this one. It seems like grammar rules are getting the hatchet all over the place. People...where are your Strunk & White's?

    Commas do present a problem, but if you really look at your sentence, ask yourself, "Is one needed there? I'm turning blue from running out of breath, so I guess so."

    One of my favorite quotes about comma confusion is by Wilde, of course:

    "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back in."

    Thanks for the reminder!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

    ReplyDelete
  2. What he said! I used to be very good about my commas. Then I kept seeing it "misused" to the point I now second guess myself all the time. Gah. I need to go back to school and get schooled.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know what you mean. I even second guess them sometimes and have to go look up a rule.

      One of the worst things I've been seeing lately is the comma left out after a long introductory phrase--I'm talking 6, 7, 8 words! Ugh. I HATE that. I mean, it's one thing to make an occasional mistake and leave one out. But what I'm referring to are books in which nearly every one is that way, or half of them, anyhow.

      Books stumble me so often lately, I'm considering buying little reader knee pads. xD

      Delete
  3. I think commas are definitely necessary. "Let's eat Grandma." Perfect example, right? Not sure eating Grandma is such a good thing to do.

    I always run my first drafts by my 15 year old daughter. She's the comma queen. We've gotten into serious debates over them, but in the end, she always wins.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hahaha
      Leave it to the kids fresh out of English class. :P

      Delete
  4. I still use commas with introductory phrases. It seems a wise place to pause and take a breath.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed. And if these writers would see the good in that - that it makes a long sentence seem shorter - maybe they wouldn't be so quick to nix them.

      Delete
  5. I am guilty of using too many commas, I love them and can't deny I get carried away. :D So now I get so nervous about using them too often that I end up not using them enough.
    I honestly don't understand the trend of trying to eliminate commas almost completely. Bad idea in my book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Don't fret. Just do your best to follow the rules, then have an editor double-check you. ;)

      Delete
  6. Hey Melissa,

    One moment while I wipe the remainder of the spitwads that actually did make it to my blog. However, if you want to use rules, you don't put a comma after the conjunction word, "and" and now I shall probably continue on and write a run-on sentence without any commas and overuse that conjunction word and just so you can practice holding your breath and keep waiting for the sentence to end and now it will abruptly stop.

    Boy George would be proud of you. A bit of a comma, comma ,comma comedian.

    Bye Melissa.

    Your adoring fan,

    Gary :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. hahahaha
      You heard about that, did you? *blush*

      Thanks for visiting. :)

      Delete
  7. LOL! I tend to love my commas. Too much, probably. Then again, they're probably better than reader confusion.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'll confess: I used to fret a ton over how many commas I used, and where. Then I realized that I was spending more time worrying over that than other stuff that was probably more important.

    Thus, I instituted the following foolproof plan: Read everything out loud and try to comma at natural breaks/breaths. Read again silently to make sure there is clarity and proper attribution to go along with my commas. Finally, let my editor tell me where I've screwed up.

    Works 60% of the time, every time! :D

    ReplyDelete
  9. I don't like tomatoes!

    Sorry, that last one felt real. ;) Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  10. Holy comma drama, right??? I am ALWAYS hearing a different argument. This post was great, Melissa, thanks. I've totally been seeing the "delete comma trend' lately--but I agree that they're needed!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I definitely lean towards including commas rather than eliminating them. I hate having to reread a sentence because I need to think about what the author means. Some of that is word usage, yes, but sometimes a comma would really help in separating the thoughts.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks Melissa. Finally, some 'comma' sense. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  13. I agree with Mike--BRAVO! BRAVISSIMO!!!

    Mellissa, this is a much needed rant of yours and I say, "Rant on!" I totally agree with you on the comma issue. The English languages DOES need commas, and the examples you give are perfect demonstrations. Well done, my friend.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I actually love commas, maybe too much. (; I feel commas help set the pace and give sturcutre. When I'm unsure about comma usage, (and too lazy to look it up--ahem) I'll say the phrase out loud and say the word 'comma' in the spot where I want to use a ',' and if it sounds right, I'll put it in. If not, out it goes. (:

    ReplyDelete
  15. @Cathrina - Thanks. :)

    @Demetria - You're too kind. *blush*

    @Elise - I'm too lazy to look them up some days, too. So I just email mom. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  16. I either leave them out (cause I "just" want to get the words down) or add to many ('cause I'm over thinking while I write). I'm trying to balance the two.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I tend to salt n' pepper a little too liberally with my commas, but you're so right, taking the hatchet to them can really screw with meanings. Strunk n' White is my friend.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Couldn't agree more. Comma's slow pacing, but you can't just drop them and assume that makes everything better.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Rant away! This one is appropriate. Commas - both too many or not enough - can really mess with the meaning .

    ReplyDelete
  20. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I LOVE commas. Almost as much as I love semi-colons. I also loved this rant :) I agree - commas change meaning and give us essential breathing room. I always know a sentence needs a comma (or five) if I can't get through it without pausing to take a breath.

    ReplyDelete
  21. One day I will have to post about my own personal Commagate. LOL. You're so right but I've become a comma lover! Love your examples. You always explain stuff so well. My favorite pro-comma example is "Let's eat Grandma!" and Let's eat, Grandma!" LOL

    ReplyDelete

I love to hear what you have to say.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. = )