Sunday, November 26, 2017

How to Comma

As an editor, I can safely say that the number one issue with the majority of manuscripts I edit is comma placement. A comma, against popular belief, doesn't simply imply a pause during reading, though most certainly feel that way. No, the comma's main use is an organizational tool in the written word. Or at least, that's how I've come to consider them. Of course, there are a list of rules regarding comma placement, and I'll cover each rule here. I'll also mention that I follow the Oxford Comma, because without it, things can get a bit confusing, and in the world of the written word, you want your exact point to come across with your readers, not an interpretation on their part. So without further ado, let's dive in, shall we?

     (1) Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, so, yet, etc.) which links two independent clauses.

In terms of fiction, this rule is often bent to suit the author's needs. I'll show you a simple example of this rule in play. I fed the ducks, but they didn't eat the crumbs. These are two independent clauses separated by a comma as expressed by this rule, however, oftentimes authors will over look the comma if their independent clauses are short enough to be able to stand on their own. For example:

Julia walked across the room and she slowly opened the door.

The two clauses are short enough to stand on their own, the only thing I would change, is removing the she (Julia walked across the room and slowly opened the door.) because that will aid the readability of the sentence by removing the second subject from the independent clause and making the comma no longer necessary. Also, separating the two short clauses with a comma (Julia walked across the room, and she opened the door.) would make the readability a bit wordy. 

There are a large handful of rules that will litter your manuscript with commas. However, you don't want to overdo it either. So regarding fictional manuscripts, when the clauses are short, forgo the comma. It may require a small revision (remember we removed the she), but the readability will thank you. When the clauses are larger (She ran through the halls of her crumbling mansion screaming for someone to answer her, but it didn't matter how loud she cried because there was no one around to hear her.) stick that comma before the conjunction. 

     (2) Use a comma after a dependent clause that begins a sentence. 

If you begin your sentence with a dependent clause (When she crossed the room), you always need a comma to follow it (When she crossed the room, her dress sashayed softly against her hips.) You can easily tell these sentences because generally speaking, if you put the second half of the sentence before the first (Her dress sashayed softly against her hips when she crossed the room.) the comma is no longer necessary and the sentence will make just as much sense reorganized like that. 

In the morning, she awoke with a start.
After the bell rang, they exited the class.

     (3) Use a comma to offset appositives.

Appositives are those descriptors that add to a sentence, but aren't always necessary. They are the extras. They are important for authors, the details that make up the story, but if they are removed from the sentence, the sentence would still be able to stand on its own. I'll show some examples, leaving the appositives in italics so you can see. Depending where the appositive sits in the sentence, you may require more than one comma to be added. 

The girl walked down the stairs, a ruby red runner lining the pale oak steps.
The girl ran down the stairs, a ruby red runner lining the pale oak steps, as she raced to answer the door. 

     (4) Use a comma to separate a list of items.

As I mentioned above, I tend to favour the Oxford Comma. Which basically means I place a comma between the last two list items, after the word and.

She brought cookies, muffins, brownies, and donuts to the bake sale. 

That was an example using the oxford comma. This is where I'm going to share a meme. It highlights why I favour the Oxford Comma.
It's just easier to avoid any unnecessary confusion. Use the comma. 

     (5) Use a comma after introductory adverbs.

Words that end in 'ly' generally require a comma if you use them to start your sentences. Also, words like however, although, though, on the other hand, and also. 

Finally, the pizza is here.
Though, if you think hard enough...
Usually, we eat at four.

     (6) Use a comma when attributing quotes.

Think taglines. Your character has spoken, and what was said is not a question or an exclamation. No, it's a simple statement and you want to tag the character to avoid confusion. Of course, depending on where your attribution lies, you can still have question marks or exclamation points within your quotes and may need to use an attribution comma as well. I'll leave three different examples below to guide you.

"I am happy to see you," Steven said.
Rachel turned and faced him, "I can't believe you said that to me."
"Hello," the teacher said, "Ready to begin?"

     (7) Use a comma when your sentence begins with a freestanding yes, no, or maybe.

Yes, I think I will have some eggs.
No, I don't think we should do that.
Maybe, it does sound intriguing.

     (8) Use a comma when directly addressing someone, or something, in a sentence.

I'm happy to see you, Charles.
Maxine, will you come over here for a minute?

     (9) Use a comma between two adjectives that modify the same noun.

This one can be confusing sometimes, but there is an easy rule to get this right. Think, for example, of the sentence: It was a large, round soccer ball. What would happen if you switched the comma for the word 'and'? It was a large and round soccer ball. What about if you swapped the adjectives? It was a round and large soccer ball. Notice how both of those sentences still made sense? It means the comma is well placed. Try it with the following examples.

The soft, velvet curtains swayed in the breeze.
Her sapphire, sparkling eyes smiled at him.
The thick, rough bark of the tree bit into his skin.

     (10) Use a comma to offset a negation. 

It was the red car, not the blue one, that ran the traffic light.
I saw George, not Paul, robbing the convenience store. 

     (11)  There are three other rules for commas that don't often come into play when it comes to authoring fictional novels, but just in case, I'll list them here as well. Use a comma to separate each element in an address, use a comma to separate the elements in a full date, and use a comma before every sequence of three numbers when writing a number larger than 999.

123 Apple Street, City Name, Province/State, Postal Code/Zip Code.
I really like Ottawa, Ontario.
It was Thursday, November 15th, 2014.
Friday, October 13th, 2017, was a very creepy day.

And there you have it. As you can see, there are quite a fair amount of rules regarding comma placement, and when it comes to fictional manuscripts, some rules can be bent slightly to help ensure your manuscript isn't just one giant comma ball. Commas don't always signify pauses, though because they are generally used to separate independent clauses, their most common use, they come off like that. 

If you are a writer who often has comma errors within your manuscript, start with one rule at a time. Post that single rule above where you generally write, where you can look at it as you write if necessary, and just focus on training yourself not to mess up that single comma error. Once you feel confident with that rule, focus on another. Once you learn their placement rules, it can become second nature, though it will take a significant amount of practice and focus. Until then, make sure you have a quality editor to catch the ones you miss. 

Do you have a request for a new article on the editing process? If so, simply leave a comment on this post. It is my hope to write more blog posts on every aspect of the writing process, but as a newbie author, I'm going to focus on the editing side of the writing process as I have more experience editing novels at this point. Until next time,

Happy Writing,
Kristine Schwartz