Punctuation marks

Cooking with Commas

There are many different things that can drive an editor batty. Punctuation just happens to among them. There is much confusion about punctuation. Often writers get them confused. Hell, even editors have been known to get a little muddled.

Today, I wanted to address the importance of the comma.

I will grant you that there is a significant amount of debate over the usage of commas, particularly the Oxford comma (whether we should or shouldn’t use it). It probably doesn’t help that the Oxford comma has now won a legal court case.

However, many editors will agree that commas seem to be disappearing from text, partly because of the increasing usage of smartphones and social media. This, folks, is not a good thing. I will grant you that when writing a hurried tweet, the comma can consume precious character counts. However, one little comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

Consider the following sentence:

“I like cooking dogs and kids.”

Witch's KitchenWell… A statement like that stirs up interesting connotations for a thriller or horror story—maybe even a story about witches and their potbelly cauldron. However, if your story is a simple romance, where boy meets his future bride, then you might want to use something like this:

“I like cooking, dogs, and kids.”

Let’s consider the following sentence:

“Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage.”

When I read that sentence, the first question that goes through my mind is, “What type of story am I actually reading?” In a science fiction, the above might be correct, because time travelers do have their place in science fiction. In a non-fiction about traveling the world, the comma is missing.

“Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage.”

Don’t forget the commas that save lives.

“Let’s eat grandpa.” (Never mind that grandpa is actually skinny with very little meat on him. Not a very tasty meal.)

Those who do not have cannibalistic tendencies will say, “Let’s eat, grandpa.”

However, comma insanity can go the other way too. Consider a classic comma-ridden line from the classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo:

“Well, sir, really, if, like you, I had nothing else to do, I should seek a more amusing occupation.”

If a client ever presented me with a sentence like that, my first reaction would be, “EEK!” Then I would kindly suggest that the sentence be rewritten to eliminate the comma hell. Perhaps to something like this:

“Well, sir, if I was like you and had nothing else to do, I would seek a more amusing occupation.”

I will grant you that the rewritten line doesn’t possess the same flare as Monte Cristo, but that novel was published in 1844 – 1846, and in French. I doubt it would have been published if it had been written for today’s market.

There is a mountain of articles on the internet about how to use commas correctly. There is a whole chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, most style guides include whole chapters on the correct usage of commas. Every writer serious about publication should consider investing in at least one style guide. As an editor, I have three, and I want to acquire two more, but I’m a bit crazy that way. For those interested, a list of recommended style guides and dictionaries can be found on the page for Book Resources under the section for editing.

A good general rule: if you read your prose aloud and hear yourself take a breath, the odds are that is where a comma, or some other punctuation, belongs.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

Posted in Punctuation, Writing and Editing and tagged , , .

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