Love, Comma, Yours Truly

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


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

16 thoughts on “Love, Comma, Yours Truly

  1. Alethea,
    The comma splice you mention is everywhere in YA literature and it drives me crazy! But I figure these occurrences have been through enough copy editors that someone, somewhere decided it was okay. Can universal usage of something wrong make it right? Maybe. Case in point: “I am so nauseous.” I’ve seen reference books these days say it is okay because of common usage. Maybe there’s hope for ending a sentence with a preposition or the split infinitive, after all!

  2. I used to be a comma-using mamma-jamma. I’ve cut back on the amount used when writing initial drafts and STILL go back during revisions and remove more. I rarely find myself inserting new ones, though.

  3. Absolutely! I also advocate starting sentences with “And” or “But”, and using “they” and “them” as a non-gender assigned pronoun.

    And, according to the copyeditor on ENCHANTED, I am apparently using the word “only” in the wrong place. Every time. Who knew??

    1. I LOVE starting sentences with And or But and fight with myself every time I want to do that. I usually cut about three-quarters of them. Grammar books say to do this sparingly –that’s sparingly, right?!

  4. I have had many instances of thinking “holy shit, this REALLY needs a comma!” But maybe that’s just me. 🙂

  5. I love that book. It’s awesome. That said, in the day job I have to work with non-writer writers. That means explaining that all caps, underlines and exclamation points are not a good idea. I have to do that while stroking their egos. This, my friends, is why I drink. 🙂

  6. I’ve been out of school for soooo long! (We won’t go there–let’s just say Regan was in office). My grammar skills may not be what they used to be. Case in point–my friend who edits my work–noted I would close off my quoted sentences with a period instead of a comma–and capitalize the ‘She said.’ I didn’t realize I was doing it! Forgetting simple grammar rules while I’m writing bogs me down. It’s hard sometimes to believe I was in Honors English in high school! 😛

  7. I actually never learned about commas in school – yeah, my school was really crappy. So I blame any mis-comma-use on my poor, early education.

    Now, I like to think of commas as writing glitter. I sprinkle them in when I feel like it. 😉

  8. This reminds me of a mermaid bumper sticker I saw online: My Water, My Rules! Thought you guys would get a chuckle out of that one.
    I agree that you need to know the rules in order to break them, but I like the rules for commas. If you follow them, you can never go wrong. People use them incorrectly all the time, and it drives me a bit batty. I’m a lover of correct comma usage. 🙂
    In college I had no idea where to put a comma. I just took a breath in the sentence and dropped one in where it sounded natural. Imagine my surprise when my professor took a red pen to my paper like I’d never seen before! LOL. He went over the rules, and I loved that. I finally knew where to put commas. So–that being said–I find that I’m a comma lover.
    There are times when I have to read and reread a sentence several times because it doesn’t make sense. Sometimes a comma can change the complete feel of a sentence or idea.
    I’ve always loved this punctuation parable. Obviously this isn’t just about the comma, but I’m still including it. This is the exact same letter written with different punctuation.

    Dear John,
    I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.
    You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?

    Dear John,
    I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior.
    You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

    Long live the comma!

  9. Lee – Hi. My name is Robin and I am an em-dash abuser.

    I don’t abuse the comma but the em-dash is my favorite tool – and therefore way overused!

    Hilarious post! You make the potentially boring so alluring.


    1. Oh, Robin. I’m lovin’ me my em-dashes, too! I overuse them, and I make no apologies for that! 🙂

  10. I aspire to have these issues with an editor someday! I know I’ll keep her hoppin’ whoever she will be!

    And I think Kerri should patent the term ‘writing glitter’ pertaining to commas!

  11. Remember that us oldsters were taught to sprinkle commas much more freely in our writing. We even had teachers who taught us the use of commas by reading aloud with a big breath at each one. Now, (inhale!) we have to learn to do without, (inhale!) or face editorial perdition.

    On the other hand, who ever got rejected for their commas?

  12. Thanks Alethea for a great post! I love that book. Although, I had to explain to my husband why the title was so funny when a friend gave it to me. LOL!

  13. I don’t believe that is a comma splice in the Surgeon General’s warning. It is a logic clarification.
    “(drive a car or operate machinery) and may cause health problems” versus “drive a car or (operate machinery and may cause health problems)”

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