“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:
- Never use a comma to separate two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction. That is a comma splice.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for any questions about grammar or syntax.
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
More on grammar:
- Sentence structures: Simple, Compound, and Complex