Comma ‘gain?

by limebirdmike

Commas… they can either make or break your writing.

The trap a lot of people fall into with commas is to assume there is a ‘hard and fast’ rule that governs their use. The truth is, in many respects, there isn’t. While in some situations (which we will look at later) a comma or lack of comma can change the meaning you’re trying to convey, in many others a comma is merely a tool to be used to alter the speed and the flow of your writing.

Commas in lists

While there are not many rules that govern commas, there are a few. The first role of the humble comma is as a separator in a list. In this instance a comma is used between each item in the list, with the word ‘and’ in place of the final comma to close the list.

Example 1:

The colours of the Union flag are red, white and blue.

Example 2:

My breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans and toast.

Hopefully the use of a comma in this situation should be fairly straight forward and there really shouldn’t be anything new here. What some of you may not be aware of however, is the Oxford comma. This is an optional use of the comma before the final ‘and’. Some people will always use an Oxford comma, while others will never use it at all. My advice is to stay open-minded and consider that in some circumstances, the Oxford comma can be used to effectively change the tone of your language, placing a little more emphasis on the final item. Read again my second example:

My breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, and toast.

See the difference? It’s certainly subtle, but it’s definitely there. Depending on the style of the writer this comma might well imply something out of the ordinary about the toast, or indeed, there might be a particular reason for us to note that the breakfast included toast. Either way you should note that the extra comma does impart a slightly altered ‘feel’ to the way the sentence reads.

The secret to success

The simplest way to think of a comma in general writing is to think of it as a pause – a place where your writing takes a natural breath for air between the bigger breaths that come at the end of each sentence.

In a sense, there’s no real right or wrong way to use a comma in this regard, as the way you use commas is dictated by your subject, your audience, your style and your tone.

To fully understand the best way to use commas in your writing, you really need to become one with your voice. This requires you to gain an understanding of how your writing actually reads.

As is so often the case, to become a better writer, you must become a better reader. Learn to read, and understand what your voice is actually saying and your writing voice will improve. The best tip I can give you then is this: read as you breathe. When you read something in your head it should sound as it would were you to read it out loud. This is, after all, how writing is meant to be interpreted.

Go on, try it yourself – read your writing back to yourself. The more you do it, and the more you come to appreciate the subtle changes a well-placed comma can bring, the better your writing will be as a result!

Commas as parentheses

Though there are countless examples of comma usage out there, I don’t feel this blog would be complete without a quick mention of the comma as a form of parentheses. Depending on whether you want to draw attention to a parenthetic point should depend on which form of parentheses you use, but let me give you this (very brief) example:

Limebirduk (of which this blog is a part) is a very useful site.

Limebirduk, of which this blog is a part, is a very useful site.

Limebirduk – of which this blog is a part – is a very useful site.

Note that you don’t always have to use brackets to make a parenthetical point – equally, you don’t always have to use dashes. Observe how as you read each example in turn there is an increasing amount of emphasis placed on the point ‘of which this blog is a part’. For a ‘middle of the road’ type aside, the comma is to be highly recommended.

And finally…

Sticklers for grammar from the UK will have heard of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves— a book inspired by poor punctuation in a nature article that describes how a panda ‘eats, shoots and leaves’ (i.e. the panda is armed and dangerous!) Notice here how the mis-placed comma acts as a separator.

In my second example, Raymond E. Feist’s At the Gates of Darkness ends as follows:

‘You’re certain there will be one?’ asked Sandreena.

‘As certain as I am of anything,’ said Pug.

The conversation ceased leaving them in silence.

Spotted the mistake? The conversation ceased leaving them in silence. Conversations, by their very nature, don’t leave their participants in silence. Without a comma, the line is a contradiction that leaves the reader feeling confused. What the line should say of course is: ‘The conversation ceased, leaving them in silence’. Without the comma, the whole effect of the last few paragraphs is lost — the ending simply loses its power and the cliff-hanger is no more!

If you have any questions or comments about this, or any other point raised in this blog, please feel free to comment below.

Until next time,

Mike

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34 Responses to “Comma ‘gain?”

  1. I agree and disagree with your piece. I think the rules have their place, and it is understanding when to follow and when to be loose with them (rarely please) that makes you a powerful writer. Good reminders!

    What a lot of inexperienced writers hear is simply, “Put a comma where you pause.” If that’s the only principle ever followed, a piece of writing will suffer…in my opinion.

    • Please don’t misunderstand me — this blog certainly wasn’t intended to suggest people shouldn’t follow the rules. More my point is that you shouldn’t *worry* about rules as I think there is definitely a case for saying some people spend too much time worrying about rules, and too little time worrying about how their piece actually *sounds*. Really, the two should go hand in hand.

      As for your point about inexperienced writers, the key here in my opinion is to read, read and read some more. Until you have a good grasp of how to actually *read* in its truest sense, things like commas can prove tricky. Ultimately, this refers back to the whole subject of ‘finding your voice’ as a writer. But I guess that’s a topic for another blog! 🙂

  2. This is a well-written piece. I have one thing to say, though. Depending on your style and tone, you may find it equally helpful, as I do, to cut back on the use of commas; in sentences where commas are optional, I almost always go for fewer, rather than more. As I said, it is personal style that governs this choice. Just wanted to add, though, that I believe commas to be overused. Still, I believe this post has all the best ideas about using commas. Good post.

    • Thanks for your reply. To be fair I could write 10 different blogs on commas and still I wouldn’t have covered everything. Overuse of commas is definitely an issue I find, but equally, a missed-out comma can be just as bad, if not worse in some cases (see my ‘And finally…’ example).

  3. It’s sometimes amazing how such a small thing (a comma) causes so many problems for writers and readers. I agree with The Masquerade Crew that writers must be careful with the “Secret to Success.” It’s natural to think that a comma is a good way to show a writer’s pause for breath. But if one doesn’t understand correct comma usage, such a practice can result in true comma faults and misuse.

    Some writers may not care. But anyone trying to get a traditional print deal should take the time to learn the basic rules. We can break them. To do that effectively, however, we must understand what we did—and why.

  4. Personally, I love commas. I love using phrases in my work that fill out longer thoughts and sentences. And, occasionally, I do go a bit overboard. (That’s where a good editor comes in handy!)

    And, while I cringe when I see a long sentence with no comma or other pause, the absence can also create a particular feeling, or mood, or sense of urgency (as you do mention). You’re correct that a lot of it does depend on the voice of your prose. Great point, there!

    Comma use is always a good thing for writers to keep in mind, though! Thanks for the post!

    • Thanks for your post! I completely agree with you on the subject of commas, as in a sense, they’re one of the most important punctuation marks when it comes to actually controlling your voice as a writer. Once you’ve got the basic rules sussed, they form a crucial part of your form and structure — just as much as the words themselves in many respects I think.

  5. Mike, I agree completely with your comma philosophy! And I don’t think you mean to imply that a writer shouldn’t know the rules – only that he needn’t follow them slavishly; he can bend them to increase the subtlety and flow of his writing.
    Personally, I always use the “Oxford comma” although as an American I didn’t know it was called that! I was taught in the old school where the comma was used in that manner and so, being stubborn, I have always done it. However, I recognize that the other way has become standard. As for the “beans and toast,” the author might want to convey that beans and toast was one entity; substititute “crackers and cheese” or “ham and eggs.” Turn the sentence around and you might have “Their breakfast consisted of ham and eggs, toast, jam, and coffee.” You wouldn’t have a comma after ham.
    As for getting the feel of a story through reading it to yourself in your head, why only in the head? I read my own stuff out loud to myself all the time!

    • Thanks for your reply Lorinda. With regards to the Oxford comma thing, it only applies to the *end* of a list, so you’re completely right in regards to the ‘ham and eggs’ point. Taking your example the optional comma is the one following the word ‘jam’, though because you’ve already included ‘ham and eggs’ (two items that go together), I would include the comma after jam as otherwise you might imply the jam and coffee go together as well.

      I should also point out at this stage that in lists that involve items that are longer than a few words, it is common to use a semi-colon as a separator as opposed to a comma, but again, that’s a discussion for another blog! 😀

  6. Thank you, I’ll take all the comma education I can get! You’ve brought up excellent points here, let’s see how long I can remember them… 🙂

  7. Great post. Really helpful reminders.

  8. Sometimes, I feel I become a stickler about commas. Too many of my Facebook friends post statuses without any punctuation, grammar, or capitalizing letters of any kind. So I do what any kind grammar-conscious person would do, and in a comment, re-state their entire status with correct grammar, as well as correct spelling of words, if need be. That wouldn’t be considered rude, would it? =)

  9. In my book, no it wouldn’t, though I do tend to find my friends get a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the tiniest mistakes in my own statuses… :p

  10. Commas drive me crazy because so many other people are anal about them. I get so frustrated at people telling me I either left out a comma or need to add a comma. Because of this, I hate commas. Silly, isn’t it?

  11. I’m bad with parenthesis. I will have half of something I write in a parenthesis and always find myself going back and fixing it with commas.

  12. Funnily enough I just bought a book called ‘Grammar For Grown Ups.’ I was thinking that my own technical writing skills are not up to the standard they should be if I’m planning to self publish and I read their section of parentheses. The book did seem to make it anywhere near as clear as you just have, and though I kinda, sorta knew it, I’m comforted to see confirmed what I thought.

    Your last example also makes it good and clear.

    Ta for the post! 🙂

  13. I think commas are the hardest kind of punctuation to use properly. But I feel I now have them under control.
    I enjoyed the reminders, Mike.

  14. My favourite example is:

    “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs “Let’s eat, Grandma!” – punctuation saves lives.

    I have a vague feeling I may have posted that on Limebird before. I’m sorry if I have. Oh who am I kidding? I’m not sorry at all!

  15. I love the humble comma. I read every article out loud at least once to check the flow, and therefore the commas. It really makes a difference – so good tip!

  16. Learned something new again. 🙂 Thanks.

  17. Great post. I can’t recommend Lynn Truss’ book highly enough. I never laughed so much reading a book on grammar. 🙂

  18. I can honestly say that I have not one clear idea about the use of punctuation, especially the comma. I flunked that class in second grade. I do know that you are right about reading what you write, or more correctly, you should write the way you speak. If you say something with a pause in the sentence, a comma belongs there. Read it back and the punctuation just shows up. I know I’m probably not right a good portion of the time, but it sounds right, rules or not. I hate rules, but I can’t tolerate Virginia Woolf and her train of thought writing, or writing without punctuation at all.

  19. I sooooooo over use commas. Now, I over think using a comma and psych myself out.

  20. Great post Mike, really informative! I am definitely a comma overuser, I can’t help myself! I might make this post into a pdf so people can download it! 🙂 I’ve made Sally’s posts into one, I just haven’t put them up yet but I think this will be useful.

  21. So, this just came up on my personal FB account (real story). I’m editing for non-G-rated words, but otherwise verbatim:

    Friend’s status update: How do gays do a drive by? They throw a handful of skittles out the window and yell “Taste the Rainbow B****es!”

    My comment: Um, having just read about proper use of the comma, I think you mean, “Taste the Rainbow, B****es.” Or maybe there’s such a thing as Rainbow B****es and I’m just out of touch (entirely possible, given that I don’t watch TV – ever). 😉

  22. I prefer added that last comma:

    “My breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans, and toast.”

    as without it I always feel there is some sort of grouping. For example:

    “My breakfast consisted of bacon, eggs, sausages, beans and toast.”

    Feels as “beans and toast” are somewhat grouped. I am not sure if others feel this way, but I feel the extra comma keeps the seperation of the items consistent, even though the “and” technically seperates them within the context.

    What do you think?

  23. As a grouchy old Brit I am in favour of the Oxford comma 🙂

    I find that I do over-use commas at times, which is where the reading comes in, it helps to winkle out the extraneous ones!

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