Monday, August 16, 2010

Commas Intermediate

Tip of the Day: A good grammar guide is expensive! Have you priced the Little, Brown Handbook? $63 on Amazon! If you have one from college, hang on to it.

Lately fellow writers have been saying to me that punctuation is not their strength, and I've noticed a lot of comma misuse in my critiques recently. I don't notice this comma misuse in published books. I'd notice it if it were there. I'm like that. So somewhere along the line, these commas are getting fixed by someone.

(Mostly what I notice in published books are missing articles, such as "She fell off Empire State Building." Those are hard to catch on manuscript.)

Most people overcomma so it stands out. It's harder to see something that isn't there, so when in doubt, it's probably best not to use the comma. Here's what I usually see:

She went to her favorite gym so she could be seen, and to her favorite ice cream shop afterwards.

That comma should not be there. She went ... to her favorite ice cream shop. No comma! I guess you could stick a comma after gym to set off the clause "so she could be seen." But why? I mean, if you're sticking commas in, you should know why. You know why you stick every word in. You agonize over "just," admit it. You search for "just" when your manuscript is done and go through the "No, I really need this just. OK, can I get rid of the next one?" dance. Alright, it would be crazy to do that for commas, but you should still have an underlying reason for using them. They aren't used for pauses in conversation.

Every once in a while, I critique someone who hardly uses commas at all:

She went to the ice cream shop and her best friend ordered chocolate ice cream which was her absolute favorite even though it was boring compared to their mocha marshmallow.

Once the subject changes, use a comma. She did something, and then her best friend did something. That sentence could use another comma before which, but I don't really care. The missing comma when the subject of the sentence changes bothers me much more.

If the person performing two actions is the same and her name isn't repeated (She worked out and then ate) don't comma. If the person is different (She worked out, and her friend ate) comma.

I never know if I should mark this stuff on critiques. Do people care? Do they want me to critique their grammar or is that distracting from the critique of the story? I don't want to let anyone down by refusing to point out a comma they might have missed before they send something out, and I don't want to insult anyone by marking their manuscript as if I were their sixth grade English teacher. Mostly, I don't mark it unless someone tells me they're sending the piece to an editor or agent this week.

The thing is, if I have a question about whether a comma should be there at work, I have resources to look it up. Most people don't have those resources at home. Here's my question: if you had something like the Little, Brown Handbook available free online or cheap in hard copy, would you use it?

I would. It would be a great distraction from more writing!

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


DeenaML said...

Please mark my commas! :)

Kathleen E Wynne-Roberts said...

I use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)for my grammar. It's excellent. I maintain an annual subscription, which in the long run is probably more expensive than buying a book, but is infinitely more useful and accessible as well as constantly up to date.

Summer Ross said...

Great post, this really helps!

Anonymous said...

One thing writers usually discover during copyedits is that none of us REALLY know how to use commas. The copyeditors save us from embarrassment.

Kate Fall said...

My theory is that we don't know how to use commas because don't look them up like we look up words in the dictionary. Because I use my dictionary a lot.