Love, Comma, Yours Truly

“Know the rules, so you know how to break them properly.”
–Dalai Lama

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Depending on the time of day and the amount of alcohol involved, writers can go on for hours debating the differences between “voice” and “style.” As a part time copyeditor, it is my job to recognize an author’s style…and then not mess with it (unless it conflicts with house style–just like in poker, the house always wins).

One of the elements unique to each writer’s style is the comma.

Commas are used for lots of reasons. They can be used in lists of one thing, two things, and a third thing. They are used when addressing someone. They are used when interjecting a thought into a middle of a sentence. Most commonly, however, they are used to designate a pause in the rhythm of the text.

Most commas are legal. I feel confident in saying that because there is a comma splice in the Surgeon General’s Warning on the label of every bottle of alcohol produced in the US:

1.) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. 2.) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.

A comma splice is a comma that has no purpose in a sentence. The comma between “machinery” and “and” is really just not necessary. (Though you should have seen the Fairy GodBoyfriend’s face over his Lucky Charms when I asked him to grab me a beer just now.)

It was late when I noticed this particular comma, someone was having a debate–with alcohol, and I was a bored copyeditor. (I double checked it with the English teacher present, just to be sure.) I say that if the Surgeon General is entitled to superfluous commas, then you, too, are welcome to use all the commas you want. If some crazy copyeditor messing with your style wants to take them all out, you have every right to put them all back in.

Before you do, though, I ask you to give it a shot. Leave the comma out for once and see where it goes. Long ago, when I was just a reader, paragraphs with lots of commas sometimes threw me out of the story. But I honestly can’t think of a time I was in the middle of a book and thought, “Wow, that sentence really needed a comma.”

What it comes down to is this: Trust your reader. Trust that your reader is going to know where to put the inflections in sentences and when to pause. You don’t necessarily have to put a comma in front of that “but,” but you can if you really want to. I’m not here to mess with your style. But if you’re open to suggestions, then I’m suggesting it.

I now try to make a subconscious effort to leave out commas when I don’t need them. Despite that, I think my copyeditor still took out about thirty more commas throughout the text of Enchanted. Oh, she put in a few, too, but that’s par for the course…and sometimes that’s house style. I have no problem leaving that up to the house.

Oh, shoot. You must excuse me, everyone. It’s time for me to eat and leave