Monday, September 15, 2014

The Curse of the Comma

It's been a VERY long time since I posted about writing. And it's even been longer since I've talked about something very boring, yet essential, for writers: grammar.

(Insert sigh HERE)

I'm a stickler for grammar. It probably stems from my days as a high school English teacher. As a writer, my eyes are just naturally drawn to grammatical mistakes. Interestingly, I'm not nearly as sharp when it comes to seeing errors in my own writing (a topic I want to blog about in the near future).

So let's tackle the dreaded comma, shall we? Why? Because the poor comma is being abused by a lot of writers and even editors. Using "gut instinct" or putting in a comma when it "feels right" won't cut it. Here are three common comma issues. We'll start with easy and work our way to the most difficult one.

1) Use a comma after an introductory clause.
After we went shopping, we went to eat lunch.
I don't usually see this one abused, as there's a natural pause there. So gut instinct doesn't get this one wrong. Easy as pie.

2) Use a comma between two INDEPENDENT clauses joined by a conjunction (and, but, for, so, or, yet, nor)
The car broke down, and I didn't have a cell phone.
I will sometimes see problems when the writer left off the conjunction and used a comma by itself to join the two independent clauses. Most writers got this!

3) Do NOT use commas to set off essential clauses.
The apples that fell out of the tree are delicious.
Okay. Now this is where I see a lot of writers mess this one up. I know several of you are just dying to put a comma before that and one after tree. But you should resist the power of the comma in this example.
...that fell out of the tree...is a relative clause, followed by the noun apples. Any clause that begins with that and follows an ambiguous noun is always essential. Remember, an essential clause is also a relative clause. A relative clause's job is to simply help limit a broad, ambiguous noun.

...that fell out of the tree...is telling you which apples are delicious, since the noun apples is so general, it could be the apples in the basket, or the ones at the store, etc. Comprende?

Here's another example:
The guy wearing jeans was underdressed.
Again, it's easy to feel the itch to put commas around ...wearing jeans...
But you would be wrong. Which guy? Oh. That guy in shorts? In a t-shirt? No. The guy who wore jeans! So it's an essential clause. It's defining the very broad noun guy.

How about this one?
My daughter, wearing jeans, was underdressed.
Ah, but I used commas here. Why? Because ...wearing jeans...in this case is NON-ESSENTIAL. How so? Well, my noun here is very specific. It's MY daughter. Proper nouns are also the most common specific nouns. Proper nouns, or very specific nouns, don't need defining.

Another example:
Mr. Wilson, wearing jeans, was underdressed.
It's non-essential, thus you need commas here. The proper noun Mr. Wilson is very specific.

Let's make things even more complicated. Hopefully my explanation will help.

*If the clause becomes more of an accessory (non-essential), then you will set them off with commas. These "decorative clauses" just add a bit of information.

My new house, which was purchased last week, cost me a fortune.
Mr. Wilson, who paid for dinner, was very nice.
I went to the store yesterday, I think, and bought some apples.

The above three examples have commas setting off the clauses because the clauses are non-essential. They are decorative and not defining.

I hope that helps! There's a ton of more comma rules out there, but let's start with baby steps. 

* * * * *
Carol Kilgore, a great blogger-buddy of mine over at Under the Tikki Hut, wants everyone to know that her novel, SECRETS OF HONOR, is now available!

By the end of a long evening working as a special set of eyes for the presidential security detail, all Kat Marengo wants is to kick off her shoes and stash two not-really-stolen rings in a secure spot. Plus, maybe sleep with Dave Krizak. No, make that definitely sleep with Dave Krizak. The next morning, she wishes her new top priorities were so simple.

As an operative for a covert agency buried in the depths of the Department of Homeland Security, Kat is asked to participate in a matter of life or death—locate a kidnapped girl believed to be held in Corpus Christi, Texas. Since the person doing the asking is the wife of the president and the girl is the daughter of the first lady’s dearest friend, it’s hard to say no.

Kat and Dave quickly learn the real stakes are higher than they or the first lady believed and will require more than any of them bargained for.

The kicker? They have twenty-four hours to find the girl—or the matter of life or death will become more than a possibility.

PURCHASE LINKS:
Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Honor-Carol-Kilgore-ebook/dp/B00NH0QTO6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1410561862&sr=8-1&keywords=secrets+of+honor

Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Secrets-Honor-Carol-Kilgore/dp/1500522031/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1410561862&sr=8-1


Carol sees mystery and subterfuge everywhere. And she’s a sucker for a good love story—especially ones with humor and mystery. Crime Fiction with a Kiss gives her the latitude to mix and match throughout the broad mystery and romance genres. Having flexibility makes her heart happy.


You can connect with Carol and her books here:
Under the Tiki Hut blog: http://www.underthetikihut.blogspot.com
Website with Monthly Contest: http://www.carolkilgore.net
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/carol.kilgore1
Twitter: http://twitter.com/carol_kilgore
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6094110.Carol_Kilgore

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Carol-Kilgore/e/B008FRCXQY

23 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I actually under-abuse commas, if that's possible. My critique partners are always pointing out where I need them. I guess better than going overboard. And in your examples of where they shouldn't go, I definitely wouldn't place them there.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Sigh. I think I need a grammar refresher course.

Oh, but I do love those "Grandpa" lines. Laughed out loud. :)

Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Thanks for the grammar refresher course. I've gotten better at using commas, but I still abuse them in my own writing sometimes.

Jay Noel said...

Alex: I've even had lengthy discussion with editors who put commas wherever they see fit. The grammarian in my wants to strike them down with a ruler! Muhahahaha

Madeline: It's a lot to remember. And I'm pretty sure Grandpa isn't very delicious.

Jay Noel said...

Michael: I usually get accused of not using them enough. But it's really others are wanting to plaster my writing with commas. They tend to multiply like rabbits!

Carol Kilgore said...

Comma usage was muddy water for me for a long time. But then the comma god switched on the lightbulb and one day, like magic, I suddenly got it. I still mess up from time to time, but I have an awesome editor :)

Thank you so much for mentioning my book today. Much appreciated!

Cindy said...

That was a nice comma review. The books sounds interesting will have to check it out.

Noelle Granger said...

Saw the title of your post and had to read it. I'm known as the Queen of Commas (adding and deleting) in my critique group. Your rules do fit mine; I had a wonderful curmudgeon of an English teacher in high school who taught us well. My mother, who also wrote, said one of her teachers once turned her paper upside down to demonstrate how many commas she had put in her essay!

Jay Noel said...

Carol: Best wishes with tons of sales!

Cindy: Thanks for stopping by.

Noelle: That's brilliant! I'm going to turn my stuff upside down to make sure I'm not overloading with commas.

M Pax said...

The comma can often confuse me. I'm sure I still screw it up sometimes.

Congrats to Carol!

DEZMOND said...

I worked as an English language teacher in a high school too, but I make tones of mistakes while writing in English because I type quickly as a translator.....

Mark Noce said...

Yay, I put my commas in the right place...I think I passed:) On a related note, one of my editors refers to herself as the "Comma Nazi." :)

Southpaw HR Sinclair said...

I agree that commas are the most abused (or unabused as Alex put it) punctuation mark. I wonder why that is? Anywho, grammar refreshers are always appreciated. I think the day after HS or college we dump that info into the brain archives!

Robin said...

Like Alex, I tend to NOT use commas when I should. I spend a great deal of time when proofreading deciding if a comma is, or is not, necessary. I am worst with example #2.

cleemckenzie said...

Oh yes. Those rotten restrictive, non-restrictive clauses always trip me up. Thank heaven for editors who know the difference and care enough to correct me. I liked the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves or was it Eats Shoots and Leaves?

Christine Rains said...

Excellent lessons on comma use. Congrats to Carol!

P.S. I have Shadow Warrior on my Kindle now! :)

Pat Hatt said...

lol the cat must drive you up the wall. He uses commas when he shouldn't in every post. I know about those, but oh well. In book writing though have to watch a ton. Thankfully there are editors.

Cherie Reich said...

Congrats to Carol!

Of those three, the one I see the most in other people's work is not putting a comma in with #2. They'll have the two independent clauses joined by a conjunction but no comma.

farawayeyes said...

I admit commas tend to baffle me. Excellent post that I actually understand. Now, I'd i can just remember all those rules.

Veronica Sicoe said...

Great explanations!

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