Grammar Shorts: Comma Conundrums

“Choosing whether or not to insert a comma is the same as choosing whether or not to buy a house.” ― Chloe Thurlow, Katie in Love

By Scott Biddulph

I was sitting in my last history classes awaiting a professor emeritus, who had decided to take the class out of sheer interest in the topic—The Atlantic World; he was going to peer review the draft of my final paper. History is my minor in college, English my major, so I’m relatively confident compared to my younger colleagues when it comes to writing papers. That said, history papers are a unique animal. Those of you that read this and have a background in writing history papers, you know what I mean.

I sat there watching the professor, carefully. A few times he looked over his shoulder. I quickly glanced away, trying not to be too obvious, and I continued to impatiently await his comments. A few moments passed, and he turned and said, “Boy…you sure love to use commas, don’t you?” I replied, “I’m not afraid to.” Which may not have been wise, but he shrugged his shoulders and eventually handed back my paper. I read his remarks and his suggested corrections. He was quite complimentary for the most part. His suggested corrections were rational. The crazy part, I noticed that he didn’t mark my commas. I think he found a subtle respect for them. Besides, I knew the rules. I was confident. Now I want you to be confident.

“Boy…you sure love to use commas, don’t you?”

I think back to that day as I write this because I suspect that most writers, especially new writers who are a bit unsure of themselves, would have shrunk in their seats and deleted every comma in that paper when they did the final edits. Having said that, I would advise most writers to use commas sparingly when writing an academic paper. Most of the red ink that a professor spills on a paper, often like blood on the battlefield, will come from punctuation. My philosophy, after writing thousands of academic papers, is to use very little punctuation, and I stay away from the use of compound and complex sentences as much as possible when I write academic papers.

However, in the case of creative works, I’m unafraid, and it’s my goal to help you feel the same way. As wielders of the mighty pen, we must be unafraid! Much like my British friends who seem to love punctuation much more than we Americans.

The great British writers of the twentieth Century

Before we get into some simple basics about the proper use of commas, let me direct your attention to some men that I think used punctuation like oil based paint on the canvas of their literary paintings. If you read authors like Malcomb Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Tolkien, and a few others from the twentieth century, you’ll see that they weren’t afraid to punctuate. In fact, if you tend to have A.D.D like I do, you will easily lose the antecedent in some of the long and heavily punctuated sentences of these literary masters. There are examples of American authors as well, but the British authors of that time will teach you the beauty of syntax and punctuation. Well, it is called the “English” language, right?

I don’t know what it is about British writers, but they all use punctuation very heavily, and, for the most part, it reminds me of an artist’s brush strokes. The master painters and artisans are identifiable by art collectors and appraisers according to their unique brush strokes and styles of painting. It’s the same with Lewis, Muggeridge, Greene, and Tolkien with regard to their writing styles, and particularly, their punctuation.

These men wrote in various genres throughout their lives, but fiction was where they were best known, except for Muggeridge. I would still encourage you to read Muggeridge, he is an excellent and keenly satirical writer.

Academic vs. creative writing and the comma

For the student in high school, post-secondary schools, or college, the use of punctuation, and commas, in particular, should be done so sparingly. I can hear some of you saying, “why? I need to learn to write—to use proper punctuation.” Yes, that’s true, but you’ll find that professors don’t like commas. They like concise, straightforward sentences with little-to-no punctuation, and they especially hate contractions. Don’t use contractions, and Purdue Owl will back this up. These are things I’ve learned the hard way. Take it or leave it. But, you’ll remember my words when the red ink flies. If you love creative writing, then that is where you can try new things with your writing style and punctuation; study the masters, and read your favorite authors, watch how they use punctuation.

The three biggies with commas

There are several rules in the punctuation hierarchy. In the case of commas, there are several as well, but we’re going cover the big three. These three seem simple, yet, as an editor, I see writers violate them every day. Okay, let’s go with it:

  1. Never use a comma to separate two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. That is a comma splice.
  2. Don’t forget to use a comma after an introductory word or phrase, or a sentence modifier at the end of a sentence. I see this mistake all the time. Writers will introduce a sentence with an introductory phrase, which adds information, and forget to place and comma before the subject of the sentence.
  3. Use commas to set off interruptions, additional information like nonrestrictive clauses, and if you want the reader to pause (more on the creative side).

Let’s look at number one:

  • Comma splice: Karen baked a big chocolate cake for her husband, she asked him if he liked his frosting thick.
  • Correction: Karen baked a big chocolate cake for her husband, and she asked him if he liked his frosting thick.

These seem simple. Writers say, “I know, I know.” I say, “To know and not to do, is not to know.”

Number two:

  • Introductory phrase: Like she always said there is a dark side to that dude.
  • Correction: Like she always said, there is a dark side to that dude.
  • Modifiers: I hate it when the dog pushes through the door it’s constant!
  • Correction: I hate it when the dog pushes through the door, it’s constant!

You can see that even if you drop off the intro phrase “Like she always said…” The sentence would still be syntactically sound: “There is a dark side to that dude.” However, the “…like I said…” phrase adds information. I see this mistake often in my editing work, even with prolific writers. Modifiers can add info at the end of a sentence, too. These can be tricky.

Number three:

  • Anyone not sitting down won’t be counted.

We know that the phrase “…not sitting down…” modifies/refers to necessary information about the pronoun “anyone.” The phrase is necessary for the sentence to be coherent; therefore, it is not set off by commas.

  • John, who was not sitting down, did not get counted.

In this example, we see a nonrestrictive phrase that is set off by commas because it adds additional information that does not change the sentence. If we take away the phrase, “…who was not sitting down…” we still have a complete and coherent sentence: “John did not get counted.”

A recap

I’m claiming to be the next Noam Chomsky with this little post. I’m always trying to find ways to write about common grammar rules that I see violated regularly as I edit thousands of words a week. I want to make these posts concise and simple so that you can grasp them easier and retain them.

I started off with some anecdotes to show that I love to use punctuation to flavor up my writing. I’ve always been willing to push the envelope with academic works as well; however, I would advise most young writers to refrain from using a lot of punctuation in academic works. Keep sentences concise, to the point, and coherent.

I then introduced you to some of my personal favorite British authors. These men were the masters of the twentieth century, and I think you’d like their writing if you read them. Not only will you see some articulate use of punctuation, but you’ll also see some word-smithing that will teach you about descriptiveness, metaphor, simile, and analogy to name a few.

Finally, we finished up with some examples of The Big Three mistakes with commas. I hope you found this helpful. I love to help, so email me at swbiddulph@gmail.com for any questions about grammar or syntax.

Scott


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing

More on grammar:

  1. Sentence structures: Simple, Compound, and Complex
  2. Grammar time: Verbs and their sentence structures

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S.W. Biddulph

Scott Biddulph is a published writer, author, and poet from North Georgia. He began writing as a youngster and followed his lifelong dream of reaching people through the written word when he returned to The University of North Georgia in 2013 to finish earning his BA/English with a concentration on publication and creative writing. His publications include the following: an eBook, Apples of Gold: A collection of inspirational short stories and poems (Smashwords, 2010) and a paperback, Voices from the Heart, (Createspace, 2012). His poetry is published in Papers and Publications Undergraduate Research Journal. Vol 3 (2014) and the award-winning Chestatee Review (Spring, 2015), among other places (Check his LinkedIn profile for a full list of his publications). He is currently working on publishing poetry, creative non-fiction, academic essays, and his memoir. Scott has also worked as an intern editor for the University of North Georgia Press. As a freelance editor, he has done the layout and design of several books and magazines. He is currently working with several authors on various publication projects in which he is either ghostwriting, editing manuscripts, or doing the layout and design. Scott continues working on his memoir Twisted Ride. He also maintains a Christian blog: A Disciple's Journey. Finally, and most importantly, he is a father, grandfather, husband, and dedicated Harley Davidson rider (with a huge beard). He and his family enjoy the beauty of the North Georgia Mountains where they live—especially their screened in back porch where they love to bird watch. - "I love realism. I love writing about the raw, down-to-Earth, heartfelt realities of life. I love to write in a way that reaches into the human soul. I love to take the greatest pains and struggles in life, and make them a blessing to others. Fantasy is a wonderful, interesting thing—but real life situations, feelings, fears, and dreams are an unexplored ocean of stories that need to be told." ~Scott Biddulph~

25 comments

  1. Commas should be a writers best friend, they break up a sentence, allowing the writer to set the rhythm and pace of the piece. I would agree with your observation that academics love clear cut sentences and limit the commas. As an Englishman, by birth, I would agree that we love the use of punctuation more than North Americans (and commas ore often overused). Of course, now I am Canadian it doesn’t stop me using the comma, its inbred, sorry.

    Loved this summary about comma usage, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good morning Peter, thank you for your comments. I learned this about English from England versus English from America when I edited a book for a gentleman in England named David Pearce. There are subtle differences that are grammatically correct yet unfamiliar to the eye of the American editor who is not trained in English from the United Kingdom. Have a great day.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This reminds me of the work experience I did at The Financial Times when I was 14. I was an A* English student all the way through school. I was mortified when my supervisor was looking over my work and was aghast at my “excessive” use of commas! I cut them down from that day forward, but I have realised since that this was based on their house rules, not any bad grammar on my part. As I freelance writer, I have worked on so many different publications, news sites and blogs, using both American and English grammar, that I often get confused between the two. It’s quite frustrating. I use the tool Grammarly to help me spot where I’ve used British English rather than American English.

    When it comes to my own writing for my own blog, books, and articles, whether creative or non-fiction, I go with what I feel is easiest for the reader. If you’re not stuck with House Rules, the easiest thing to do is read your sentences out loud. Think about where the natural pauses come (after conjunctions), where your vocal inflection changes (sub-clauses), and where it makes sense to separate clauses so they don’t cause confusion (lists) or feel like an effort to read. If you have good intuition and know you’re a good writer, don’t stress over knowing the actual rules too much. Go with what will make sense to the reader. Grammarly always “tells me off” for not using commas after introductory conjunctions – in many cases I know it is wrong, and that putting a comma in would make it harder to read naturally.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent comment BB. I agree wholeheartedly with one exception: Grammarly can introduce mistakes if you don’t know your grammar rules. I use it to help me spot those nagging bad habits in my own writing – the ones I don’t see. Thanks again for a great, in depth comment.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Absolutely agree. Scott, I use Grammarly to check things, but always take what it says with a pinch of salt. It constantly reminds me to put a comma after an introductory “However”. But sometimes that is just plain wrong.

        e.g. “Grammarly is useful. However, I disagree with some of its suggestions.” – yes, put the comma in. “However much Grammarly insists I put a comma after the first ‘however’, I still disagree with it.” – it wouldn’t make sense to put a comma after “However” here, but Grammarly often thinks it does. Again, if you read the sentence out loud, it’s clear where the comma should go 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Scott, for this helpful grammar post. When it comes to using commas, my brain often goes into a coma. The previous sentence is a perfect example of this; is that comma supposed to be there? I appreciate editors.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    Like

    • Hello, Wendy,
      I know, I’m a grammar nerd; we are weird and lonely creatures (laughing). As to your question about the comma, the answer is yes! The beginning of the sentence is a “Sentence modifier.” It introduces preliminary information about the main clause. The structure looks like this: [Sentence modifier] subject + predicate. Your sentence: “[When it comes to using commas] (modifier), [my brain] (subject) [often goes] (verb phrase) [into a coma] (prepositional phrase).” See, you know your commas. BTW, I loved the pun – comma/coma! Thanks for your loyal interaction with this site. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I once edited a book by an archeologist who was in love with commas. Reading it was like walking down a path strewn with rocks. He gave an appreciation dinner for everyone who had been involved in the project where he thanked me for removing “bushels of commas” and said he had “put pecks back in.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great story Joan. I just recently finished editing a textbook that’s being published by three Ph.D’s. I was surprised at the number of grammatical errors I found, but then, their discipline is sociology. However, you’d think that they would have better writing skills then what I experienced. Thank you for visiting, and thank you for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey John,
      Thank you for the kind words about the post. I know, Marilyn is always on me about doing more of these posts. I always feel like people won’t like the dry topic of grammar; yet, when I write these posts, people really seem to enjoy them. I’m glad because it feeds the nerd inside (laughing).

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Lorraine, if you’ve read any of my memoir pieces on the site, you would quickly surmise that I didn’t finish High School and only came back to education later in life. However, my grammarian heroes, in the halls of the university, pounded the same things into me as well. Thank you for your comments and kind words.

      Like

  5. Great post on how to use Comma. I used to ignore comma, and even its valid uses. Sometimes, I even used Semi-colon(;) at places where comma should have been used.

    Liked by 2 people

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