The Comma: “When in Doubt, Leave it Out” (Don’t We Wish!)

October 3, 2015 - When it comes to punctuation, the most aggravating mark in the English language has got to be the comma. It is so misused, I would say at least 80% of my “punctuation time” with the average manuscript is spent editing commas. Authors and editors alike would be ecstatic if only we really could just leave them all out….

This situation does bring with it a hidden gift for you as an author – just by paying attention to a few simple rules, you can easily and significantly improve the professional quality of your own work. Here’s how:

Give commas the inside track.  The most common mistake
I see with commas (and their cousin, the period) is placing them outside quotation marks. Whenever a comma is used with a word or phrase in quotes, the comma belongs before the ending quote mark. For example:

My favorite words are “peace,” “love,” and “happiness.”

Take a breath when changing speakers. When a direct quote is used, or a character in a novel speaks, a comma should precede the quote. This is like taking a breath before a new person speaks. For example:

Shakespeare wrote, “To be or not to be….”
The boy said, “I didn’t do it!”

However, if the quote is introduced with “that,” “if,” or a similar conjunction, no comma is used. I think of this as not actually changing speakers and so a breath isn’t needed; the sentence just flows right on. For example:

He wondered if “all’s well that ends well” would apply to this day’s work.

Pause, but not too long… This is the trickiest comma usage, and one that often trips folks up, because the rules aren’t always hard and fast. The comma denotes a place where we would pause, briefly, if we were speaking. This usually means after introductory phrases, to identify parenthetical thoughts, or to separate two phrases which could stand alone as full sentences but are connected by a conjunction such as “and” or “but.” For example:

As time went by, he became more elated.
The message, which I knew to be true, was loud and clear.
He loved winter, but he couldn’t stand the snow.

A long pause, such as two related sentences which are connected without a conjunction, do not use a comma. They use a semicolon instead. For example:

He was a nice fellow; he always had a smile.

Don’t worry about the laundry list. An ongoing source of comma contention in the editorial world seems to be the dreaded list. Do you, or do you not, put a comma before the last item in a list? For example, which of these is correct?

The basket easily held bread, cheese, and a bottle of wine.
The basket easily held bread, cheese and a bottle of wine.

Both are in common usage. Even the Chicago Manual of Style, which I use as my editorial Bible, “strongly recommends” including the comma before the final item in a list, but they don’t set it in stone. The bottom line, as in all comma usage, is clarity.

If all of this seems “archaic 2 u w/txting  r msg irl,” consider the difference between the following sentences:

Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!

Is the difference important to you? It clearly is to Grandma! And it is to your readers, too.

Happy Writing!