Tag Archives: commas

EDITING 101: 52 – Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…

Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing is back with a post about a punctuation “rule” most of us probably aren’t even aware of—even though we sort of know how to apply it. It’s fun to play around with what “sounds right” to native speakers and speculate as to why.

I’ve argued that you really need only five comma rules to use commas “correctly,” but as Susan points out, commas have other roles, such as controlling emphasis. Commas are strategic tools for writers.

Can you have too many? Absolutely, if they’re inserted where their only role is to interrupt your text. Actually, if you can apply my five rules, you’ll never be “wrong.” Hardest to apply? I’d argue that it can be tricky for some of us to recognize when an element like a non-essential modifier begins and ends.

So what are the comma dilemmas that drive you nuts? Let me  know!

 

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Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy ofAdirondack Editing

Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…

So, you’re merrily typing along and your character wants to put on a blue, silk, handmade scarf. Oh, wait a minute. Is that a silk, blue, handmade scarf or a handmade, silk, blue scarf? A blue, handmade, silk scarf? Oh dear!

Aha! Super Editor to the rescue!

(Imagine me swooping over your house and flying in your window, red pen in hand!)

(Ok, now imagine me 10 pounds lighter. Another ten. Ok, that’s better.)

Adjective order in English is not completely random, although what we’re going to discuss are more along the lines of guidelines rather than rules. The exception is when you’re speaking of words of general description along with words…

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Commas and how to use them (Part 1)

Do you need the Oxford Comma?Hi! Back from an extended adventure. I’ve missed being part of the blogging community.

Below, I’ve shared the first of a really, really comprehensive set of rules about using commas from over at the Story Empire Blog.

I personally love commas; they control emphasis and sentence rhythm and serve as simple traffic signs to tell readers which part of a sentence they’re currently in and when they are changing directions. I’ve posted a bunch about commas on this blog because I love them so much (for example, in “What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?”

And “Commas Control Emphasis. Here’s How!”

My own experience teaching college writing for 25 years led me to believe that reducing the number of “rules” people have to remember is better than trying to explain everything in great detail. Rules tend to make our eyes glaze over.

So, in What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?, I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the missing comma after “post” in this sentence and the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:

  • After introductory elements (usually)
  • Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
  • In direct address (always)
  • Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of hree or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)

I note that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it. Observance of that caution will eliminate a lot of commas between nouns and their verbs!

Stroll over to Story Empire to check out Parts I and II of this post on this most useful and most misunderstood punctuation mark!

Story Empire

Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.

What is a comma? What does it do?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’

The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.

One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.

Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it…

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What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?

The five basic comma rulesHere’s a great article for you punctuation police to agree or argue with. My personal favorite is the comma. 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 wrote an entire post 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:

  • 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.)

  • Around “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers.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.

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 rule here, and it is a rule, is either two commas or none. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.)

Here’s an example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without turning the 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.

  • 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?

  • Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the Oxford or serial comma Pinker discusses in the article I’ve linked to, and his examples of the power of this punctuation mark are good ones.)

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 (and note the comma after the introductory clause).

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

I’d argue this is a judgment call, but again, as in this sentence, judicious use of the comma in a compound sentence like this one can provide valuable information about which part of the sentence a reader has ventured into.

{Note commas after the introductory element and around interrupters in this sentence. Commas can keep those elements distinct, so that they make sense.)

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 a number of 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.”

 

 

 

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Do You Need the Oxford Comma? See What You Think!

Do you need the Oxford comma?Here’s a discussion of that often maligned—or at least, often ignored—punctuation mark, the Oxford or serial comma. Disclosure: I believe in the Oxford comma and never leave home without a bagful.

However, do note that when you have only two items in a series (a compound), you DO NOT need a comma before the coordinating conjunctions (usually “and” or “but”). So sayeth Virginia. What sayeth you?

(BTW, if you haven’t encountered the Freelancers’ Union, you might want to take a look. They provide support for independent contractors and single proprietors of all stripes!)

Here’s an extra comma, in case you’re out! Do you need the Oxford Comma?

 

 

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Another Good Article on Dialogue

From fellow writer alfageeek, here’s a link to a Scribophile piece on dialogue that provides some excellent elaboration on the piece I reblogged yesterday. Join in the discussion about “actions” as “dialogue tags.”

flipped comma1     !      Comma 1

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Are You Botching Your Dialogue?

This post from Kristen Lamb’s blog gives some good basic guidelines for using and punctuating dialogue. These principles can be surprisingly hard to master, so a good primer is always helpful. The one I see most often is the use of an action as if it were a dialogue tag. To add to Kristen’s list, I’d say, “Watch out for that darn Autocorrect in Word. If you have it turned on and you accidentally type a period instead of a comma after the dialogue, Autocorrect automatically capitalizes the next letter, so you end up with two punctuation gaffes, not one.
Thanks, Kristen!

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Today we are going to talk about dialogue. Everyone thinks they are great at it, and many would be wrong. Dialogue really is a lot tricker than it might seem.

Great dialogue is one of the most vital components of fiction. Dialogue is responsible for not only conveying the plot, but it also helps us understand the characters and get to know them, love them, hate them, whatever.

Dialogue is powerful for revealing character. This is as true in life as it is on the page. If people didn’t judge us based on how we speak, then business professionals wouldn’t bother with Toastmasters, speaking coaches or vocabulary builders.

I’d imagine few people who’d hire a brain surgeon who spoke like a rap musician and conversely, it would be tough to enjoy rap music made by an artist who spoke like the curator of an art museum.

Our word choices are…

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Commas Control Emphasis. Here’s How!

I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.Comma 1I intuitively understood this power from my own writing, but I credit Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar with making concrete what my instinctive ear told me: how such a simple little mark can help communicate precisely what we want readers to hear.

Grammar books and various grammar web sites, of course, lay down the kinds of apparently sacrosanct rules that drive real writers crazy. “You must, must, must put a comma there because the rules say so.”

Comma 2On the one hand, not necessarily. On the other, it’s important to understand how certain principles governing things like punctuation have consequences for writing. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, one who smacks other people’s writing around for rule-breaking, but by golly, punctuation is a tool!

We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning. A simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite. (Can you do it? Give it a try!)

But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and commas are tough little drill sergeants, lining up every word in its place.

Take emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:

  • There is in fact a reason for what happened.

Comma 3Now, in my view, whether or not we should set off the “interrupter” (“in fact”) with commas, as the grammar books instruct, is a judgment call. Leaving out the commas is fine. But when you add them, something happens. Listen:

  • There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.

To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the first sentence, without the commas, I hear

  • There is in fact a REASON for what happened.

In the second sentence, the commas do what Kolln and my ear say they do, shifting the emphasis onto the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads

  • There IS, in FACT, a reason for what happened.

The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We shift our attention to the “facticity” of the claim. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.

Comma 4

But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that change not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also taps “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,

  • There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.

Comma 5And as a bonus:

In addition to illustrating one of the functions of commas—to reposition emphasis—these examples also illustrate how breaking one of those apparently sacrosanct rules we all hear again and again can actually give you an additional tool to control emphasis. How many times has someone told you to strike out “there is” and “there are” every time they crop up? But if you try to get rid of the “there is’ in this sentence, the emphasis on “reason” that persists through all three versions withers. Compare

  • I can tell you a reason for what happened.
  • The facts reveal a reason for what happened.

Nothing wrong with these sentences. But their message—that what seemed random or accidental is actually the result of some cause that the speaker is about to explain—is flatter, more subtle. That’s fine. But if you want to be assertive, if you want to firmly refute the idea that the event is random, accidental, then “There IS, in FACT, a REAson” is your go-to choice.Comma 6

And there is, in fact, a reason why.

Both the “there is/are” and “it is” force emphasis on the words that immediately follow them.

  • There is NO POINT in not liking asparagus.
  • It is TRUE that I liked asparagus when I was a child.
  • It is SAD that I don’t like asparagus now.

This effect holds for the contraction forms of these constructions —”it’s” and “there’s”—as well.

The bottom line: Punctuation and sentence structure choices give you more control over how readers “hear” what you write. Don’t ignore the rules; just recognize how understanding the flexibility they offer can leverage the power of your writing. Don’t want to emphasize ‘FACT”? Leave the commas out. Want to hit hard on “REAson”? Hang on to that much-maligned “There is.”

Buble quote speech on cloud space for text

Do you have examples of how commas and sentence structure control emphasis in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?

 

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