Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Pausing For Thought

Most of us can spell.  We know the difference between its and it's, and we figured out long ago that roosters don't say "Cuck a dodle do."  We've also mastered the basics of grammar, figuring that we have to tie the subject of the sentence back into the action if our readers are to figure out who is doing what.  However, there's one area where I've noticed a distinct lack of understanding.

The comma.

A comma, in layman's terms, is where we take a breath when reading.  It allows a break in the action, whatever that action is, and let's us gather ourselves before plowing forward.  Unfortunately, most folks don't get where they need to use this literary device.

The easiest way to figure out where you need a comma, and where you don't, is to go back through your work and read it out loud.  If you want to take a breath but there's no comma in place where you would like to do so, that's where you add it.  Conversely, if you're reading something and noticing commas in places where you know you shouldn't pause, then remove them.

I make this plea because the improper use of commas drives me bananas.  Correct punctuation adds to the flow of a book, and that flow gets interrupted if I have to spend a couple of seconds trying to figure out the tone of voice and reading rhythm because someone didn't break it up right(or broke it up too much).

A few general rules to go along with knowing when and when not to pause:
1.  Compound sentences are two distinct ideas(independent clauses) that can stand alone as a sentence.  They're joined by a conjunction, such as and, but, for, or so.  Short compound sentences don't require it if it would interrupt the flow, but most need it.

2.  Starting a sentence with a dependent phrase usually needs a comma.  For example - "While playing by the river, I saw a mountain lion in the bushes."  The first part of that sentence makes no sense on its own, and not breaking it up with a comma makes reading it awkward.  Trust me.  Go ahead and read it without the comma - I'll wait.  Satisfied?

3.  Introductory expressions are those that get us into the flow of the sentence.  Although usually used more in speaking than in writing, such a use exists.  An examples would be, "Well, I was thinking of that anyway."

4.  Lists.  This should go without saying.

5.  Finally, names or titles within a sentence.  Examples would be, "I rode to the store with the new coach, Jim Johnson, before heading to practice with soda for the whole team," or, "Tim Gibbons, the Chief UN Inspector, was wearing a blue blazer."

Yes, I know all of this sounds condescending and elementary, but I'm amazed by how many don't understand the use of this simple piece of punctuation, and it drives me up a wall.  I want to be captivated by the story, not caught up in how choppy it is because someone didn't know when to take a breath(or took too many).  If just one person gets something out of this, it was worth it.

And if not...well...I've done all I can do.

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