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To "comma," or not to "comma," that is the question.


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Initial post: Jul 11, 2012 11:43:28 AM PDT
Betty K says:
Okay, we all agree that I have a problem with commas. I've googled a lot of 'stuff' about them. And I just find it confusing. But maybe you have some rules of thumb for me.

When should you absolutely comma, and when should you not.

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 12:14:06 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 11, 2012 12:17:43 PM PDT
Reading a sentence out loud helps. That way you get a feeling for when you need a pause of breath. Especially if the sentence is long. Though you do have to take into account that different readers will pause in different ways, so sometimes this method is unreliable. Maybe this will help: http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/commas/

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 12:25:17 PM PDT
Marianne says:
I like Grammar Girl's website: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/

Good luck!

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 12:32:53 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 11, 2012 12:37:08 PM PDT
Ditto GrammarGirl website, as recommended by my editor, and Lynne Truss's book,
"Eats, Shoots & Leaves," as recommended by me.

I think you'll find that there are no absolute absolutes; there are no hard and fast rules because 'commatizing' depends on what it is you want to say.

(edited three times to adjust comma placement :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2012 12:57:16 PM PDT
Betty K says:
lol Cecile.

Thanks for all your comments, so far.

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 1:14:51 PM PDT
I'm a big believer in the proper use of commas, which sometimes causes me to cringe when I see them used incorrectly (or not at all). I will often use em-dashes when expressing a tangential thought that is its own independent clause, preferring em-dashes to commas in that regard. Semi-colons have their place; their place is between two closely related independent clauses.

I did a quick search and came across this Quick Guide to Commas [I've added thoughts in square brackets]:

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

[This is correct: "The man jumped into the car, and the garage door closed behind him." Note the independent clauses. But the following example doesn't need a comma because they share the same subject. "Fred raced over to the dinosaur bones and inspected them with his magnifying glass."]

2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

["Obviously, you must be kidding." ... "In the big scheme of things, you are insignificant."]

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

["When I saw my truck, a silver F-150, I grabbed the chainsaw." ... Here are some tricky ones: "Frank gave ten bucks to his daughter, Jessica, to repair her transmission" is correct only if Jessica is the ONLY daughter. If Frank has two daughters, Jessica and Emily, then the sentence would have to be "Frank gave ten bucks to his daughter Jessica to repair her transmission."]

4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. That clauses following a verb expressing mental action are always essential.

["I smashed the front door of the car that had an Obama sticker." doesn't need a comma because you are identifying the specific car with the "that had an Obama sticker." (i.e., the car was chosen because of its political message). If, however, that bumper sticker wasn't essential to the identification of the car, you could say, "I smashed the front door of the car, which contained an Obama sticker and reeked of pot."]

5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

[Good ol' Oxford comma. "My favorite forms of punctuation are the period, the comma, and the exclamation point." I'm still a believer in using the comma across all terms, because otherwise you might end up with a confusing book dedication that says "To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa"]

6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

["He sniffed the white, silky tablecloth and determined they must have eaten spaghetti."]

7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

[not sure what this one is]

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion.

[I'd need to see an example]

9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

[Fred screamed, "Get off me, Wilma!" This shows the comma between the screamed/said and the quote. It also show the comma between an imperative (usually) and a name. One of my gripes is the missing comma on "Give me my inheritance Uncle Henry" or "Take out the trash Suzie." There is a HUGE difference between "I know Barney" and "I know, Barney" OR "Let's eat, Grandpa!" and "Let's eat Grandpa!"]

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

[just don't violate other rules]

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2012 1:15:10 PM PDT
I love Grammar Girl.

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 1:21:37 PM PDT
found some good examples here: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/02/

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2012 1:29:35 PM PDT
I Love Rodney Walther's willingness to share his expertise :)

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 1:38:34 PM PDT
Betty K says:
I do too, Cecile.

Thanks for that, Rodney. I really do just "love" you (period) for all the help and encouragement you give us here.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2012 1:45:08 PM PDT
Marianne says:
I love your example for the Oxford comma. *giggling*

Posted on Jul 11, 2012 1:49:32 PM PDT
Ah shucks... *shuffles feet*

I mean, where else but a forum dedicated to the writing craft (except for maybe your local writing critique group) will you find lively discussions about punctuation?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2012 3:09:36 PM PDT
Thanks Rodney. I'm learning something new every day here. It's great to have such wonderful characters sharing their knowledge and spreading the gift of language. :)

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 6:09:34 AM PDT
L.A. Rikand says:
I have a comma problem also but part of it stems from actually following the comma rules. Some are out-dated and/or not necessary. As different as many of the classics are from modern fiction, so are the readers. They don't want to be paused by strings of commas. For instance, in Rodney's #1, #6 and #10 I find no need to pause. Jane Austen (for instance) included commas "by the rules" and reading her stories can get really annoying.

Grammar Girl is great, as are many books on the subject (Grammar For Dummies!) but the most effective is to read your book out loud. Half the time the comma in question is where rules dictate it should be but it just sounds "off."

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 6:35:38 AM PDT
I guess I'm not one who looks at commas as "pauses", per se. Granted, I follow comma usage as it was beat into me as a student, but I've always thought that incorrect punctuation serves more to confuse readers than make the work easier to read. In the above examples, I would enter the negotiation room prepared to compromise on #1 and #6, but I'd be willing to fight hard to preserve the comma on "I know son."

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 6:39:22 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 12, 2012 6:40:24 AM PDT
In the somewhat silly example #1 "The man jumped into the car, and the garage door closed behind him", it is possible for the reader to initially be confused if there is no comma. "The man jumped into the car and the garage door..." reads like the man jumped into the car AND the garage door. I always try to avoid confusion, and I'd have to say that proper comma usage usually helps in that regard.

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 7:16:10 AM PDT
Marianne says:
I have noticed that many people are dropping the commas in #6, and I can live with that. In fact I like it. Those commas have always struck me as unnecessary. But I do like my #1 and #10 commas. To me it looks wrong when they're dropped.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 8:38:09 AM PDT
Reading out loud....exactly what I said several posts ago. We seem to think alike L.A. :)

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 8:53:22 AM PDT
Writers aren't always supposed to be able to punctuate correctly. Hire an editor. (Or hire an editor for one chapter, figure out what she did -- or ask her to tell you what she did -- and apply the same principles in the rest of your work.)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 9:02:44 AM PDT
That's what editors are for: punctuation and typos! :)

Posted on Jul 12, 2012 9:12:04 AM PDT
CLB77 says:
I've always liked commas, and think I'm pretty good with them (I mean, I should be... 8 years of college devoted to language arts means you should know all the tricks, right?) but you know what? My agent totally schools me. Every time. :)

Comma rules ARE changing, though. All language is evolving on a daily basis.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 9:14:00 AM PDT
That must hurt Cara. :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 9:26:19 AM PDT
You did that on purpose, didn't you, Alexandra? *We have a Rule10 violation in Sector Alpha Beta*

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 9:38:30 AM PDT
...cue maniacal laughter!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2012 9:47:36 AM PDT
CLB77 says:
But it does hurt Cara! ;)
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Participants:  15
Total posts:  50
Initial post:  Jul 11, 2012
Latest post:  Jul 31, 2012

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