Where Do The Commas Go?

Posted: February 22, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

Whether you are a writer who has written for some time or one who is just starting there is always that lingering worry about punctuation.

For me, it is commas. I have had a several years of experience in Journalism, and I have to tell you that college didn’t teach me everything. I took lots of literature classes but none in English grammar and punctuation. An oversight, but it is what it is.

English: A normal and an italicized comma in T...

Worrysome little buggers, aren’t they?

Here I am offering but a few tips, mainly because I am not an expert. These, however, have helped me:

On commas: Parenthetical expressions constitute a large use of commas in everyday writing. We include a clause or word which is not necessary to the sentence, but adds information. You notice I did not include a comma after the word which in the preceding sentence because it wouldn’t have made sense if I lifted the italic section out. The sentence could not stand alone (and that’s the rule here). If you have a clause not necessary to the sentence it should be set off in commas.

For example: “To be a better writer, and have a command of your words, you must write daily.”  In this preceding sentence, the highlighted text is a parenthetical addition to give the sentence extra oomph, but it is not needed. I could take it out and the sentence would stand on its own and make sense. Therefore, it needs commas.

A and An: I learned  an indefinite article like a or an has specific usages. If it proceeds a word with a vowel or soft sound, you would use an.  “He handed me an envelope.”   If the word it proceeds is a consonant sounding word you would use a.  consonant sound: a yard, a university.  A vowel sound: an apple, an hour. Notice in the last example, an hour, the word starts with a consonant, but sounds like a vowel. And university, starts with a vowel, but uses a because of its hard consonant sound.

There was a time when I didn’t know this rule. But I am not the only one. You have only to listen to the TV news and you will regularly hear a newscaster using “a” when “an” is the correct usage. (“A envelope, a animal?“)

Now I am not an expert on English usage, and I am not the one to tell anyone how to write. But I can tell you how to learn the rules. There are several books out there, and you only have to find one or two and study them. I will list a few I use at the end of my post.

Another route to learn punctuation and usage, is to read other writer’s works. Slow down in a book you are reading and notice how the author punctuates, etc. When you are looking into proper usage in your English guide, you may remember something you read and will make better sense of it. Paying attention to style while reading will be of immense help when you write. You won’t be guessing as much.

You will also learn by trial and error. Have someone else look at some of your work and give you some tips on punctuation and usage. Adapt what you’ve learned and work on mastering it.

I have heard many writers say, maybe I will hire an editor to edit my book. If you can afford $6-10 a page and up, more power to you. They will charge more depending on how deep an edit you need. If you do pay an editor, take time to go over the edits. Ask questions of your editor. Learn from the experience and cut your future editing costs.

For those of us who cannot afford to pay for an editor, many authors make great use of critique groups, or ask friends to lay a friendly eye on our work. You would be surprised how many people will say yes. Ask them to look for obvious typos and, if they have a command of the English language, ask them to help with commas, sentence structure, and grammar. We call these people “Second Readers” or “Third Readers.” An additional eye will help us make our work the best it can be.

A word here: If you know all the usage rules and consider yourself adept, you still need a “Second Reader” of some kind. We cannot catch everything, and we will not. We are too close to our work and we don’t know half as much as we think we do sometimes.

One important note I would add is don’t get caught up in punctuation and usage while creating. There is a style know as free-writing, where the author/writer writes up a storm, leaving dangling participles and incomplete sentences in the dust, in trying to get in touch with his creativity. I actually do this all the time. I am practiced where I get most of the punctuation, etc., right, but still must go back and clean up typos, add quotation marks, or catch misspellings.

Don’t let the rules stifle your creativity. Rules can be adhered to in a rewrite or revision. This is the part where the brain switches from creativity to analytical, a difficult shift for many.

Writing Guides: The Elements of Style, Strunk and White (a cliff notes version)  This link takes you to Bartleby.com for a free online reference of the book. Also access other reference books at their home page. Some of this information is a bit dated. Use of the serial comma in a series of three, for example, a comma is not needed in journalism, but required in novels.

The Chicago Manual of Style (the writer’s bible and bigger than The Bible. Save money and buy an earlier edition.) Hint: click on the link and sign up for a 30-day free online subscription. I copied a lot of the things I wanted to learn and pasted them into a word document. No credit card required. Most agents and authors site this as the book to reference.

The Harbrace College Handbook is for student writers and offers a well indexed easy to find solution to all of your writing questions. You can pay $81 on Amazon for the latest edition, or follow my link to the 1998 edition for 99 cents. I have this edition and I don’t think usage has changed that much recently.

  1. Don Weston says:

    See what I mean about having a second reader? I made a few typos on this first post and corrected them. Then I read this in my email box and noticed the word “know” should have been “known” in the graph that begins One important note:
    Blog posts are difficult because there is no editor to correct your copy before it is published. Sometimes I reread my post three or four times before posting it to make sure.

  2. Helen says:

    Thanks for the great blog, Don. Comma’s are the bane of all of us. There seems to be such confusion over something we learned in grade school and thought it was easy back then. I appreciate all the references, too. In the meantime we struggle…and love it!

  3. Don says:

    Great article! But under the Chicago Manual of Style, it should read

    “Most agents and authors cite this as the book to reference.”

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