The Only Comma Rules You’ll Ever Need!

The five basic comma rulesCommas are among my favorite tools for building meaning. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I’ve written multiple posts about them.

If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:

Use commas:

Rule 1: After introductory elements.

This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.

So:

After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)

But:

After he spent  an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers know that “where” begins a new clause.)

Rule 2: Around or after “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers (this is a rule, not an option).More comma rules

I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.

Short interrupters can be easy to spot:

Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.

However, Jane did not go.

Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

The information about grandad’s car is incidental to the meaning of the sentence, which is that the car is now bright blue. Lift it out and only this incidental information is lost. The rule here, and it IS a rule, is TWO COMMAS, not just the first one. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.

Contrast the example above with this example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without eliminating the point of the sentence:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the meaning.

NO COMMAS around essential modifiers! They are integral to the sentence, not “interrupters.”

Sometimes confusion about what constitutes an essential or non-essential modifier can turn a sentence into nonsense. I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.

Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.

Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:

Author wrote a lot of books.

The trick: try taking out the modifying clause and see what remains.

Rule 3: Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):Do you need the Oxford Comma?

Hi, Mr. Smith.

Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?

Louise, did you buy the bread?

Well, Mr. Smith, I guess we won’t be having any bread today.

Rule 4: Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the infamous Oxford or serial comma.) The elements of the “serial” or list can be words, phrases, or whole sentences.

Louise forgot the bread, cheese, and fruit; she did remember the wine, beer, and vodka.

My worries about her diet involved her lack of protein, her lack of vegetables, and her preference for liquid components.

If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence, which contains a compound predicate for the pronoun “you.” I’ve underlined the two components (and note the comma after the introductory clause).

Rule 5: Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.

I’d argue this is a judgment call, but this sentence illustrates how judicious use of a comma in a compound sentence like this one can tell readers which part of the sentence they’ve ventured into.

That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:

  • After introductory elements
  • Around interrupters
  • In direct address
  • Before “and” or “but” in a list of three or more items
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**).Check the five basic comma rules

*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.

**There are actually several coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”

What comma rule confuses you most? How do you decide when to include one? Share you solutions with us all!

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Top 5 Lessons From Bad Writer

This post by Allison Maruska is HILARIOUS! And too spot on. Note to self: watch out for Bad Writer when she shows up on your computer. Don’t know how she gets there, but she’s pretty good at sneaking in!

Allison Maruska

I have an alter-ego on Twitter. Her name is Bad Writer.

BW page

She doesn’t have a million followers or viral tweets or anything like that. She exists merely to be the public face of my sarcastic side. And since I talk to writers a lot on Twitter, she focuses on writing.

Since her creation in July, she has tweeted 643 times, according to that screenshot. That’s a lot of bad advice being doled out. Some of those are quoted Retweets from Nat Russo’s #HorribleWritingTips, Sam Sykes’ joke tweets, Tweeps who reply, and other parody accounts, but most are her own content based on things that I read she reads. Sometimes, the content overlaps a little. I thought we could use those instances for learning. And since Bad Writer says the opposite of what a writer should do, the lessons will be actual constructive things with her non-examples.

Lesson 1: Stop abusing…

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12 book marketing buzzwords you need to know via Sandra Beckwith

I found this really helpful! Thanks for Don Massenzio for passing it along.

Source: 12 book marketing buzzwords you need to know via Sandra Beckwith #h2e

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Amazon’s “Gray” Book Market Explained

Is Amazon's third-party-seller system robbing authors?

Is Amazon’s third-party-seller system robbing authors?

Today’s New York Times reports on the change in Amazon’s book-selling practices that allows third-party sellers to sell as “new” books they’ve acquired from remainder stocks or book reviewers as well as other sources. Authors won’t receive royalties on these sales, just as they would not from sales in used-book stores.

I’m posting this because I saw this issue flair up only briefly in a couple of the blogs I follow, and I thought it might be of interest to more writers.

The comments (at this writing there weren’t very many) challenge some of the assumptions and premises in the article. A recurring theme seemed to be that the publishing industry could do a better job of rewarding authors out front so that they were paid for their work regardless. Another is that as publishers buy into the print-on-demand trend, this form of supposed piracy will diminish.

There’s no discussion in the article of indie publishing. The focus is on hard-cover “new” books that would ordinarily provide royalties to the writers.

What about it? Is this a non-issue for you? Is it an issue only for writers aspiring to be traditionally published? I found myself wanting to comment that this article and Amazon’s policy is an argument for becoming one’s own publisher, in wh

ich case no book leaves “the store” unless the author has been paid for it. What do you think?

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Review: Every Writer Should Read Dorothy Sayers’s *Gaudy Night*

First Edition of Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy NightMaybe I should say, every female writer. The book I’m recommending is about women, yes. But was it written for women only? I’ll hold to the faith that my literary male friends might find some familiar sentiments in this story—timeless to my mind—of a woman struggling to balance romance and intellectual rigor with a successful writing career.

As a young woman scribbling away on various unworthy projects, I loved Dorothy Sayers’s whimsical accounts of the escapades of her patrician hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. At a time when the puzzle mysteries of Agatha Christie seemed to be the fashion, I much preferred the slower, character-driven, comedies of manners in Sayers’s accounts of aristocratic England between the wars.

Of course this world was completely exotic to me. A quintessential baby-boomer, I knew no English lords and thus tended to take her depiction as truth. I also knew little about Europe at that time, and skimmed over the occasional reference to world events, most of which were used more or less to demonstrate that Wimsey was not just a chatty dilettante but a behind-the-scenes actor on the veiled world stage. Social commentary in Sayers’s books gently speared the kinds of people who, forty years earlier, would have been the inhabitants of Downton Abbey.

Recently, though, looking for some relatively mindless pleasure while I recovered from surgery, I retrieved some old favorites for bedtime reading. I had always remembered Sayers’s earlier novel, The Nine Tailors, as haunting and original; I was surprised at how slowly it read on new acquaintance, how it relied on stereotypes (I’m now guessing) of inhabitants of the fen country. But I’d also remembered Gaudy Night as more lively—comic, actually—and decided to revisit it as well.

It is indeed lively, comic, sometimes even brutal in its depictions of British social types of the era. But it is more than social comedy. It is about an intelligent independent woman trying to decide whether such a woman can achieve love and marriage on her own terms, especially to a personality as overwhelming as Wimsey’s. It is about a woman exploring what it means to be an intellectual when combining “intellectual” and “woman” in the same breath was both oxymoronic and somehow unclean.

But above all—and hence this invitation to my colleagues—it is about writing. Harriet Vane, the protagonist, grapples not just with how to bring characters to life in the latest of her best-selling mystery novels, but also with writing as a vocation. As a way of touching the heavens, mentally and emotionally. In Gaudy Night, she writes both as a novelist and as a scholar, parsing the definitions of excellence in writing, of finding one’s voice in a fine, close piece of work that requires, and reflects, one’s best self. Watching these three themes—romance, intellectual rigor, and writing—converge is one of the pleasures of this book.

Harriet appears as foil to Wimsey in four of the Lord Peter novels; Gaudy Night is the third. The novel takes place in a fantasy world: Shrewsbury College, a woman’s college in Oxford at a time when there was no such thing! Female administrators, scholars, and students pursue deep, arcane questions just as their male counterparts did and do. But this devotion to academic excellence sets them up for attack from a world that is not ready for them.

Harriet returns to Shrewsbury for a “Gaudy,” which is sort of a homecoming/class reunion, and, seeking surcease from the emotional conflicts created by Lord Peter’s determination to marry her, finds herself drawn into the narrow-focused but fine-tuned academic life—and into a terrifying mystery as well. A “Poison Pen” berates, threatens, and ultimately injures the scholars as punishment for not recognizing a woman’s proper place in the world.

Yes, Harriet must partner with Lord Peter to solve the puzzle. But I suggest looking for a subtle comparison with the relationship we may, all of us, be so lucky as to experience with a superb editor whose fierce intelligence we combine with our own skills to produce something whole and deserving. And again, there’s that lovely convergence of themes: solving a difficult puzzle with high stakes, finding a way to love without surrendering oneself, and turning it all into a work of art.

These are themes that resonate for me. I don’t know a Lord Peter, so I don’t share that precise challenge. But here’s a Harriet I do know, returned to Shrewsbury to escape the publishing circus, and perhaps you know this person, too. This is from Chapter XI:

. . . In that melodious silence, something came back to her that had lain dumb and dead ever since the old innocent undergraduate days. The singing voice, stifled long ago by the pressure of the struggle for existence, and throttled into dumbness by that queer, unhappy contact with physical passion, began to stammer a few uncertain notes. Great golden phrases, rising from nothing and leading to nothing, swam up out of her dreaming mind like the huge, sluggish carp in the cool waters of Mercury. One day she climbed up Shotover and sat looking over the spires of the city, deep-down, fathom-drowned, striking from the round bowl of the river-basin, improbably remote and lovely as the towers of Tirnan-Og beneath the green sea-rollers. She held on her knee the looseleaf notebook that contained her notes upon the Shrewsbury scandal; but her heart was not in that sordid inquiry. A detached pentameter, echoing out of nowhere, was beating in her ears—seven marching feet—a pentameter and half:—

To that still center where the spinning world

Sleeps on its axis—

Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

To all our moments like this.

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A Brief for the Lowly Dialogue Tag

Today I want to devote a few minutes’ attention to the lowly and often maligned dialogue tag.

I generally agree with what I believe to be the consensus: Dialogue tags (e.g., he said, she asked) should function almost as invisibly as punctuation and should usually be limited to the more “invisible” varieties like “said” and “asked,” that is, tags that don’t call attention to themselves and take over the page. I’m okay with an occasional “she snapped” or “he growled,” but when a writer starts scouring thesaurus.com for “original” ways of saying “said,” I’m outa there.

I also subscribe to the general view that “smiled,” “smirked,” “sighed,” “laughed,” and others of that ilk are not dialogue tags but actions. People smile while saying words, but they don’t smile words.

But even when writers in my various writing groups obey principles like these, they sometimes get dinged for ANY use of a dialogue tag that is not absolutely necessary to clarify who’s speaking. I understand that many writers consider economy and conciseness to be the overriding criteria for good writing, and I also understand that even in a long prose work like a novel (as, say, opposed to a poem), every word should be there for a reason.

Yet there’s a use of the lowly dialogue tag that I never see noted, let alone encouraged.

Well-constructed scenes in a novel or story, like the novel or story itself, have a rhythm. They have rising action, as characters’ words and actions build toward a pinnacle of conflict or a momentary resolution. Then, just as in story structure, there will often be a falling-off moment, then, once again, a rising action that is more concentrated, more emotionally or suspensefully laden, than the ones before.

“End of scene” lines, if they’re doing their job, bring the whole rhythmic structure home with a punch.

I suspect that most of us hear these rhythms as our scenes take on life. I also suspect that many writers, like me, find the discreet use of a dialogue tag, especially “said,” to be a useful tool in punctuating the various rising and falling moments in a scene.

To make this case, let me present two different excerpts of a scene.

These two men are driving through a south Georgia landscape in the wake of a local named “Pop” who claims to have a secret to reveal. The two men have a contentious relationship; at present they are reluctant partners. “McLeod” is more reluctant than “Bellweather,” who is at the wheel.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts,” McLeod said.

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

One reader admonished me that the dialogue tag was longer than the dialogue! True. So let’s look at this excerpt without the dialogue tag.

On they sped, back past the motel, back through town, and out the other side past the John Deere franchise and a feed mill, Pop’s truck spewing black smoke whenever he hit the gas. They tagged him north onto an unlined blacktop between low-growing fields. McLeod kept a vigil out the window. They passed flat expanses of greenery. “What crop is that?” Bellweather asked.

“Peanuts.”

After a good two miles, Pop spun right onto a one-lane red-clay road beneath tangled ranks of oak and pine. Bellweather braked, twisting the wheel to avoid ruts that were literally bouncing Pop’s fast-moving truck skyward. “You don’t think by any chance he means to lure us out here and rob and murder us? I bet he’s got a shotgun or at least a deer rifle behind the seat of that truck.”

I contend that these excerpts read differently because of the effect of the tag. Without the tag, the information—that the crop is peanuts—becomes simply that—information, and not very important information. The question and answer could be omitted with no great loss. We know nothing about the nature of McLeod’s reply. Just a word uttered—idly?

Reread the same excerpt with the tag added. “McLeod said” becomes a punctuation mark, denoting a boundary setting off Bellweather’s futile efforts to make congenial conversation, casting the next narrative lines as a “next sequence.” Moreover, the very contrast my reviewer noted between the length of the dialogue itself and the tag emphasizes the shortness, the abruptness, of McLeod’s answer. The line becomes a half-stop, directed explicitly at Bellweather, to say, “This is not an occasion for chatting. We’re not friends.”

To a degree, it’s the solid, final beat of “said” that does a lot of this work. “Peanuts,” accented on the first syllable, doesn’t have this same force.

Is this a lot to read into a single two-word addition? Perhaps. But sometimes try within-scene transitions as well as scene, paragraph, and chapter endings with and without “said.” You may be surprised to hear that tags do make a difference. True, you can often substitute an action, but for concision, a simple dialogue tag, used judiciously, can do a surprising amount of work.

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Terrific Piece on Working with Critique Groups!

So many books!

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the critique group process, from guest blogger Kathryn Craft posting at Writers in the Storm. It rings true for me on so many levels.

Are you in a critique group? Is Kathryn speaking to/for you?

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