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Commas With Amy

I started a series on fantasy language last week, but since I’m still feeling a bit awash in terms of researching that huge topic, and because the Overlord very nicely asked someone to write an article about how to avoid comma overuse, I’m taking a break from the language series for a week. By the way, thank you to all the linguistically oriented folks who commented on the article last week. You’ve confirmed some of my own thoughts and helped me direct my future articles.

So, on to commas. In some ways, commas are the most confusing piece of punctuation in the English language. First, the “rules” are not rules so much as suggestions, like stop signs in Naples. Second, the “rules” vary according to dialect, nationality, and style of writing. A British journalist is likely to follow different comma rules than an American technical writer or an Australian copywriter. Throw fiction writers into the mix and all bets are off. Third, commas seem to generate some of the worst grammar advice ever, so even if a writer does try to follow the rules, some other well-meaning person might come along with some other comma theory or “rule” and confuse the whole thing.

Why do I put “rule” in quotes? Largely because so many of the guidelines about comma usage include the term “it depends” or the “if/then” construction. Commas are confusing as heck, and for a writer who’s trying hard to follow the rules, I think it’s far easier to overuse them than to underuse them.

This is all just to say that I do feel your pain when it comes to the comma. But rather than discuss all of the rules for using commas, let me give you some tips for how to recognize if you’re using them inappropriately or too often.

The Worst Grammar Advice Ever

How many of you were given this advice in grade school? “Use a comma wherever you take a breath or pause.”

Worst.Grammar advice.Ever.

Now, this is not to say that you should not pause when you come across a comma while reading aloud. That is entirely appropriate most of the time. But the reverse gets people in trouble all the time. I think what happens for writers who try to follow this advice is one of three things:

1)      They put in commas where their brains pause to come up with more words.

2)      They put in commas because their sentences are very long and they assume someone will have to take a breath while reading.

3)      They put in commas when they’re writing stream of consciousness sort of stuff because . . . well, it’s stream of consciousness.

If you find yourself pausing over the comma key every time your brain searches for a word, slap your right hand. The comma is not the Windows hourglass. It does not indicate “buffering” or “loading.”

If your sentences are so long that you think you will need to pause for breath, break them up. Periods are great. Reacquaint yourself with them, and with semi-colons and colons, if you’d like.

If you are writing stream of consciousness, check to see if you are James Joyce or William Faulkner. If not, stop it.*

How to Cure your Comma Overuse

If you read your work and find yourself appalled at the frequency of commas in your narrative, here are some tips for cutting down on your habit.

  • Review the comma rules. A good place to start is the Purdue University Online Writing Laboratory website, which has probably the best overview of comma usage I’ve ever come across. Another good resource isGrammar Girl. She’s much smarter than I am, her site is extremely searchable, and she’s very good about mentioning how different styles and/or nationalities might have different acceptable usages.
  • Fix your comma splices, fuses, and run-ons. I reviewed comma splices and run-on sentences in this article last year. If you’re falling into a pattern of using too many comma splices and fused sentences, the easy fix is to just break up your sentences with periods and semi-colons (if you’re a semicolon renegade like I am, that is).
  • Break up your sentences. Even if your comma usage is technically correct, you may be falling into habits or patterns that aren’t bad or incorrect, but might just be a little overused. I tend to use “comma moguls”—long comma series that end with my beloved Oxford comma. A former writing instructor said she felt like she was skiing when she read my work and begged me to stop. Another habit might be overuse of subordinate clauses. If you can break up your series or take out some of those unnecessary clauses, your work won’t feel so heavily laden by commas.
  • Remember that “technically correct” isn’t always the same as “readable.” For example, if solving your comma overuse means that you have to allow for a few sentence fragments, it’s okay to err on the side of fragments for the sake of readability. I’ve read some stories that were technically near perfect, but dull as week-old dishwater. Your fiction isn’t a technical manual. If you need to break a few other grammar rules to make your writing flow better, go ahead.

Remember, commas should be basically invisible to your reader. Good writing usually is invisible. If your comma usage makes your screen look like a fruit fly infestation, then it’s probably time to rein it in a bit.

Next week, back to linguistics.

*Okay, not really. If you want to write it, go ahead. Just be aware that it takes a real level of genius to pull it off.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar Louise says:

    Great article. I must be honest, I’m rather guilty of the ol’ fruit fly infestation (good metaphor!) I don’t think my usage of them was helped by the “using them for a pause” advice given at school Still, I think it’s something I’m slowly getting better at using. 🙂

  2. Except, many times these days, overusage on the comma IS how people speak. Sure, you don’t want to overdo it. There are many times, though, it is called for.

    It really depends on the piece you are working on, and the type of character you are revealing in a person.

    Good article though.

  3. “If you need to break a few other grammar rules to make your writing flow better, go ahead.” Absolutely – with the rider that you need to know what rules you’re breaking and why.

    • Of course! I hope I’ve said that enough in previous articles… But yes, you absolutely should have enough command of the basic rules that you understand how and why to break them properly.

  4. Avatar JillA says:

    Nice article! The widespread wrong use of commas is a constant irritant in the books I read. Although it’s been going on for a very long time. Now let’s talk about the improper use of quotes everywhere. 🙂 It’s rare to see punctuation properly inside the closed quote. It’s just painful to read stuff on the internet.

    • Jill, I agree with you on quotes. The other quote thing that bugs me is people using quotation marks to stress or emphasize a word. UGH! Stop it! Bold, italicize, highlight, even capitalize, but please stop using quotation marks to make a point!

      End rant. 😉

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