Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Comma On!

Flow is important to a good story.  Therefore, I can't tell you the number of times, in the course of reading a novel, where, through no fault of mine, I've been forced to look past the times the writer wants me to pause, even if such pauses are necessary.

Notice anything about that last sentence?  The number of commas would be enough for me to put my fist through a book and see how many pages I could tear through.  In other words, please watch your commas.

Commas are a necessary part of speech.  They offer a pause in our prose that helps the reader get the flow.  If never used, our work becomes a series of run on sentences that don't let anyone get a breath.  However, I've run across a lot of writers who overuse them.

Writers sometimes get so eager to convey a lot of information that we try to cram it all into a few sentences.  This leads to using so many commas it's as if we have an unlimited supply.  That we do is beside the point.

Ask yourself if your pause is really necessary.  Do you want the reader to take a breath?  Is the sentence short enough that it could survive without the comma?  Could you break the sentence into more than one so that the number of commas is reduced.  Further, are you cramming so much information into the sentence, requiring multiple commas, that you leave the reader with no room to imagine the story for himself?

Too many commas are as bad as not knowing when to use one to begin with.  We've all read stuff that we've had to go back and re-read because it made no sense.  We then say something witty like, "Oh, I see - that spot needed a comma.  Now it makes sense!"  It's annoying.  Unfortunately, so is overuse.

When I see overuse, it makes me think the writer is trying to hard.  They really really really want me to "get" them.  It looks needy, and I've been known to put down such books.  So, some simple rules:
1.  Use commas for compound sentences(independent clauses of sufficient length separated by a conjunction such as and or but).
2.  Use them for proper complex sentences(a sentence starting with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause and separated by a conjunction...but not the other way around).
3.  Lists - separate each item(in lists of three or more).
4.  For expository words that help explain or expound upon a thought.
5.  After a conjunctive adverb such as however or unfortunately.
6.  Following an identifier for speech(like Robert said, "Boy it's hot in here.")

Yes, there are a few other times, but these are the main rules of thumb.  So please use your comma sparingly.  Doing otherwise makes you either sound elitist or like a 16-year old high school girl who just has to be with her boyfriend every waking minute.

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