Sunday, August 10, 2008

Commas-- a couple easy rules

If you already know this, ignore it. :) This is for those writers who are submitting manuscripts without absorbing the rules for the most common punctuation mark, the comma.

What's the comma for? It's to separate out units of meaning in a sentence, so the reader knows what words go with what words. So, for example, an appositive (which is just a phrase that modifies a noun, like "Jenny, an experienced skater, loves the winter") is a unit of meaning, and so goes together, and is separated from the noun and whatever follows in the sentence.

(I am NOT going to get into restrictive vs. nonrestrictive here, because it gives me a headache to explain, and anyway, it's been explained better by others:
Another site for this
Check these out. :)

But with
Jenny, an experienced skater, loves the winter.
-- here's what it looks like without the commas setting off the appositive:
Jenny an experienced skater loves the winter. (*This is WRONG.)

Not only does the phrase an experienced skater just blend in without meaning, but the subject and verb (Jenny... loves) have no prominence-- just two more in a series of words.

Both commas are needed: The appositive is a UNIT of meaning and so should be treated as a unit-- comma before and after, not just one or the other comma.

The other most annoying comma mistake is to skip the comma after a direct address. Fiction uses a lot of dialogue, and so you'll have more direct address (using someone's name while speaking to him/her) than in non-fiction. The name, when the speaker is directly being addressed, is set off from the following sentence with a comma.
John, I don't know what you mean.
(If the name is in the middle of the sentence, then there's a comma before and a comma after:
I don't know, John, what you mean.)

That is, the name is a unit of meaning IN THIS SENTENCE. And the "sentence-proper," the main clause, is another unit of meaning.

What if the name is the subject of the sentence, or another part of the sentence? Then probably there's no comma, because it's part of the unit of meaning:
John didn't know what you meant.
You didn't know what John meant.

But here's what counts: If I get a manuscript and see on page 1 an elementary mistake like
Hello Jody what's going on?
I have to wonder how many other elementary mistakes there will be in the pages to come. Not only presumably has the author been exposed to the correct way in school (no, I don't want to hear that "no one teaches grammar anymore"-- I teach English, remember?), but also she's read books with the correct form since she was six or seven. (A good reason not to read unedited books is that they teach bad habits. ) So if this quite easy rule has escaped her, what else?

The editor has to fix every single one of those. Every one. And in some books, that might be an average of one a paragraph, three or four a page, and that's only ONE chronic error. And-- getting sick of me saying this yet?-- this is the writer's job. Making sentences meaningful to the reader (and that's the purpose of syntax and punctuation) is the writer's job.

Now most of you don't make elementary mistakes. (You probably only make the complicated mistakes that have us consulting handbooks and other editors and waking up in the middle of the night debating options. :) But be ruthless with yourself. Read the grammar handbooks. Study the examples. Compare those against your own manuscript passages. As you read edited books, notice not just how the author develops suspense, but how the author structures and punctuates sentences. Pay attention. Have a friend who is good at editing go over your manuscript-- even two or three pages would help!-- and point out your chronic errors. Don't let the friend fix these, because you won't learn unless you fix these yourself. Most important, challenge yourself to turn in clean manuscripts so that the editor can focus on the plot and characters and not the punctuation.

Make yourself absorb the rules and apply them. Grammar and punctuation are much, much easier to learn than plotting!



Ian said...

Eats, Shoots & Leaves was the best book about punctuation I've ever read.

We just got a letter of introduction from my oldest son's fourth grade teacher. She misused commas throughout it. My wife had to tear it out of my hand BECAUSE I WANTED TO CORRECT IT!

Edittorrent said...

I know... it's so rude to correct a letter and send it back. But the impulse is nearly irresistible, isn't it?

I got the CD (audio) of Eats, Shoots and Leaves and played it when we were in England. The author reads it-- hilarious. She talked about how when she was in grade school, she got a pen pal who didn't use proper punctuation... hilarious. I know we can all identify!

Dara Edmondson said...

I see misuse of commas in books on occasion and it drives me nuts! I love Eats, Shoots and Leaves, given to me by a former boss when I left to persue writing.

Ali said...

I have a question about comments and voice. One woman in my critique group keeps inserting commas in places in my manuscript where I would probably ordinarily use one, but my narrator/protagonist wouldn't. I wish I could find an example, but take my word for it that they aren't as blatant as the examples you gave. (Omit either of the commas in the two previous sentences and you'll get the idea).

To my mind, the missing commas are part of this young man's voice. I guess my question is, am I making a mistake by counting on an agent/editor to recognize that? (This doesn't mean he or she will necessarily like the voice, but there's a difference between not liking a voice and thinking "oh, look, this person can't write!") Should I make an extra effort, Alicia, when writing a query letter, to insert plenty of commas, to prove that I'm quite capable of using them properly?

Edittorrent said...

Ali, good question!
Theoretically, dialogue doesn't have to follow the rules of grammar, because spoken English is much more informal. However, punctuation itself is more a function of written English, so you've pinpointed the danger, that the agent or editor will assume that you don't know grammar and punctuation if you don't use it properly in dialogue.

NEVER "insert plenty of commas" -- because using too many commas is just as much a marker of the amateur than using too few. Get to to know the rules. Use punctuation properly in the narration (non-dialogue) of your story, and of course in the query letter-- you should do that no matter what. :)

As far as dialogue, well, I have to say, your voice should not depend on punctuation, and neither should the character's speaking voice. A very occasional non-standard punctuation marker can probably help dialogue, but as Theresa said recently about ellipses, if that's absolutely essential to dialogue, the words themselves are lacking-- aren't perhaps chosen well-- and the sentence construction should carry the rhythm, not the punctuation.

I guess I'd say, as I say about every non-standard feature-- less is more. (Except, apparently, with me and dashes. :) The more correctly you punctuate everything, the more likely the reader is to understand that the very occasional breaking of the rules is done for effect.

So try the dialogue first with standard punctuation, and do everything you can to make it "sound" right without breaking the rules. Then, if ONLY by breaking the comma rules (and I have to say, I break out in hives when I see one comma and not the other when they're supposed to be in pairs, but I'm clearly too sensitive :) can you achieve the "sound" you want... well, you know what I'd probably do. The copy I'd submit to begin with would be pristine, every comma in its proper place. Then, if/when the story is bought and paid for, the copy I'd turn in for editing might have the non-standard aspects (absolutely as few as I can stand), and I'd explain my reasoning to the editor. IF the editor says, "Sorry, no way, gotta do it right," I'd let it go. (The copy editor will probably "fix" any non-standardness anyway... very little non-standard is going to get past TWO good editors, alas or rather fortunately.)

That is, wait till you've got the check before you get too innovative. That's what I'd do. Hey, that's what I -have- done.

I am altogether too fond of a new technique used by some writers to indicate staccato thought-- periods after each word in a short sentence or fragment. Not to get too political, this not being a political blog, but the first time I saw it was on a tote bag with a picture of He Whose Name Shall Not Be Mentioned Here and underneath: Worst. President. Ever.

Those periods really helped emphasize the decisiveness of that. Now I think once a book is enough for that-- anymore would diminish the impact-- but it's a good example of how non-standard punctuation can be used (but only when everything else is standard so the non stands out).
Doubt if this helps, but... :)

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm confused. I also use commas to signal pauses in dialogue or discourse.

Neither my agent or editor has ever complained.

I love reading this blog, but sometimes I wonder a lot about the relationship between the mechanics and the result. You're teaching us better mechanics -- and that's great, because it makes our manuscripts look professional - but what about the writers with great mechanics and stories from hell?

It seems to me that above and beyond the micro detail of storytelling, there is the macro, and that's the stuff that most people can't get together.

I guess I'm saying there's more to writing than mechanics, than the details. They are absolutely, without doubt important, but there are plenty of workshopping writers out there with perfectly placed commas and absolutely no idea on how to construct a good story or build a believable character.