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Commas…To Avoid Confusion

In an effort to educate myself, I am taking a deeper, longer and more exhaustive look at commas. The most basic use for commas is to indicate a pause where you would take a breath when reading. Personally, I like commas and have been accused, rightly, of their overuse. This topic makes my brain melt. There are many different styles and rules for usage. I am trying to list the most popular uses in this article. I am ready to listen to opinion and welcome discussion, since I am working from several sources and am trying to simplify things. I can’t say it’s succeeded but hey, I have to try. So, I am adapting many ideas of comma usage to suit our fantasy genre. 😉

Because it is such a huge topic, I envisage it covering two articles.

Ready? Hang onto your hats, grab your quills and let’s see what we can absorb before the brain melts.

– – –

Commas are used to avoid confusion. Right, here are some different ways we can place the comma to avoid confusion.

When we want our readers to pause for breath.

Take a deep breath, for goodness sake.

We can use commas following an introductory word or phrase that precedes the main clause of our sentence.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo must destroy the One Ring.
Once upon a time, Little Red Riding Hood went to visit her grandma.
Yes, I have read…
However, did you read…
Finally, I am beginning to understand…
Of course, if you are confused…

We use commas to separate clauses within the sentence.

At first, when I began to write, commas were the bane of my existence.

It is correct to use a comma before direct speech.

She said, “Please make it clear this time.”
He said, “If I only understood.”

When using commas in an address, they separate different types of information.

The Opera House, Circular Quay, Australia.
Coffs Library, 2/123 Duke Street, Coffs Harbour, NSW, Australia.
Sydney, Australia. (rather than any other town called Sydney)

We should use commas on both sides of ‘parenthetical’ phrases or clauses. This included the non-restrictive part that contains additional information, not necessarily relevant to the main subject of the sentence.

She galloped toward the writhing serpent, which she knew was an illusion, causing three types of mayhem in her wake.
Whenever I begin to grasp the concept, if you can call it grasping, my brain turns to jelly.

This is a good one. I will try to explain it in simple terms. Non-Restrictive and Restrictive Clauses…Right. So we are clear on what that it is all about? Non-restrictive is when we are referring to a larger selection, while Restrictive shows that we are referring to a limited selection. Take care when placing commas around non-restrictive clauses because we can easily change the meaning of the sentence. For example:

I chose all the books that looked like fantasy novels.
RESTRICTIVE Meaning: I chose only the books that appeared to be fantasy novels. NO COMMA.

I chose all the books, which looked like fantasy novels.
NON RESTRICTIVE Meaning: I chose all the books, because to me they all looked like fantasy novels.

Lists. This is one my editor is adamant about. I am learning. Next MS will have this one corrected before submission. The comma goes between each and after the last item on a list.

He gathered up his bow, his daggers, his jacket, and his belt.
Exiled: Autumn’s Peril, Winter’s Curse, The Legacy of Lathraine’s Pledge, and The Battle for Enderseer Hold are the first four books in my series.

There are rules for using commas when we omit a word deliberately.

The road is long, the journey difficult.
He looked away, tried to forget.

Here is another fairly easy concept to grasp. Commas go before too, when too is used to mean ALSO.

Several bows and several arrows, too.

Parenthetical commas can be used to add emphasis to too, when and if too appears in the middle of a sentence. Not a practice I would suggest happens too often.

Commas are important if you are writing fantasy, but then so, too, is knowing where to put capitals.

Commas are placed after consecutive adjectives that share the same importance when they describe the same noun.

Trudging through the misty evening, rain filled clouds threatening a cold, disheartening deluge, didn’t inspire the heroes to linger.

Conjunctions like, but, or, so, and, yet, like, and although are preceded by a comma but only when they are used between two independent clauses.

The battle was over, but the soldiers didn’t leave.
Nothing matters more than this, so let’s not give up hope.

Ok, I think it is time to take a breath. With or without a comma. I know I have enough to digest.

In the next article we will continue with appositives, emphasizing adverbs, greetings, numerals, and last but not least, and possibly the most important, commas and ‘dependent and independent clauses’. Thanks for hanging in there for this exciting, fun packed, comma-filled article.

Title Image by creativelifebydesign

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19 Comments

  1. Elloise Hopkins says:

    Incredibly useful article thank you. Somehow the comma manages to defeat me far too often and this has cleared up some confusion.

  2. nilling says:

    Well I’ve learnt something new today 😀 thanks!

  3. James Kelly says:

    Good to see a nice, concise article explaining the use of commas!

  4. Thanks Elliose, nilling and James,
    I am so glad you found it helpful. Commas are not my favourite thing and I hoped this article would help me too!!

  5. An excellent article, although I disagree with your number 7. There are strong views on both sides of the serial comma debate, and I’m firmly against it, except to avoid confusion when complex phrases are being divided. The other commas in a list are instead of the conjunction, so it generally doesn’t make sense to have both.

    • Nyki,
      You are right! This is one use that causes a lot of debate. I know my leaning is to leave the comma out, but at present I am working with an editor who keeps replacing them. The research I found also suggested their use. I guess it depends on your choice of style and how strongly you feel about publishing house rules.
      Thanks for your comment.

      • James Kelly says:

        Ooh, don’t malign the poor comma; you’ll hurt it’s feelings! I think of have to agree with Nyki on this one, that last comma just doesn’t look quite right. Could you share which sources suggested their use?

        • Jason Foster says:

          I have to agree with James and Nyki on this one. Although there are occasions when a comma should precede ‘and’ for clarity (e.g. sometimes in situations 3 and obviously in 4), it looks wrong (because unnecessary) in situation 7. As I understand it, the insertion of a comma before the conjunction is an American practice that has been slowly infecting English prose in Australia over the past 40 years or so. Your natural inclination, my Lady, is correct.

  6. I’m guilty of overusing commas, so this will definitely come in handy. Thanks for the tips 🙂

  7. Commas are beastly little things. I have to review the rules all the time. I’m glad to see you and your editor are adamant about the serial comma. I’ve been known to threaten blood if people try to take my serial (Oxford) comma away from me. 🙂

    Good review–thanks!

  8. James,
    I went to various sources, but it was my editor who insisted on it’s inclusion in my ms. It is quite a common practice in American english. According to one Reader’s Digest source, The Right Word at the Right Time, the British preference is to omit the serial comma, but the reference book uses it throughout. Makes sense since it is an American publication. As Amy Rose says, it is often called the Oxford comma. It is also called the serial or Harvard comma and is standard practice in American English. According to wikipedia it is suggested in the Chicago style. Although journalists who follow the AP stylebook and British writers are less likely to use it.
    Amy, I don’t think I would threaten to draw blood over it’s use or ommisson, but thanks for your comment! It shows how strongly people feel about this pesky little beast.

    • James Kelly says:

      Thanks for the info, I had a little look as well. Interesting to see the different styles. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, which is usually my Bible, supports this comma too!

      • James,
        It’s no wonder we authors get confused, hey? I know, all I want to do it tell stories! Trying to work to the rules of different styles takes away the thrill of creating a new world. Hmm.. That’s what we need… a Fantasy world where commas don’t exist. hehe. 😉

        • James Kelly says:

          I can see it now: a young man is approached by the wizard Pun’choayshun, who tells him he is the chosen one who can save the realm from the rising Dark Lord by travelling to the lost city of Gramer and wielding the fabled treasure of Comma. Who wouldn’t be enthral led by such a tale?

    • Gru'ud says:

      Hmm … based on the usual label of “the Oxford comma” I had always thought #7 was a British thing. My boss is British and I am forever removing them when proofing his work, but he always puts them back. I’ve given up on him but still leave them out of my own stuff, per an English teacher I had years ago. Sounds like we are all still divided on this one.

  9. Micah says:

    “Trudging through the misty evening, rain filled clouds threatening a cold, disheartening deluge, didn’t inspire the heroes to linger.”

    This sentence has a few problems.

    The first and most obvious is that “rain filled clouds” should be “rain-filled clouds” . The hyphen is there to clarify that “filled” is an adverb, and nothing is actually being filled.

    The second problem is passive voice because of unclear attribution.

  10. Micah says:

    *correction to my previous statement. I meant adjective, not adverb. The hyphen part still applies.

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