Comma, Comma, Comma Clarification

Comma, Comma, Comma Clarification

Writers have an interesting relationship with their old work. Some writers talk about novels shoved in boxes and pushed under the bed, or locked in desk drawers never to see the light of day again. That’s because writers don’t like to look back at where they came from. It allows them to see all the flaws in their old things, even if they loved them.

Writers have a love-hate relationship with all of their work really, and this is just another reason.

I’ve learned to deal with looking at my old work. I’m not pulling out the stuff I wrote in high school – that probably is a lost cause. But I wrote several novels a decade ago and I still believe most of those stories are worth telling. Worth it enough to spend hours weeding through old work and transforming it into new work.

But I finished some of those novels three years ago now. Then I went on to write newer and more complicated things while I tried to figure out marketing. (And also bought a new house and experienced tons of writing-related delays.)

Now I’m finally ready to publish some of those old-turned new stories. The only trouble is, they’re old again.

Commas Are Always the Culprit

Looking at work that’s three or four years old and not hating it is encouraging. It shows me how much I’ve grown since I made writing my job. But it also reminds me of a bunch of weird old habits I used to have (like putting random commas in my dialogue to indicate extraneous pauses).

Commas are odd creatures. I’ve mentioned before that writers rarely agree about how they should be used. Comma rules are a minefield and talking about them generally means embarking on a fresh campaign across a barely cleared battlefield.

But one of the biggest things I notice about my work as compared to my new work is how I use commas now compared to how I used them three years ago.

Mostly because I understand commas way better than I used to. My understanding has become more nuanced. And instead of reading a line over and over and ultimately guessing where the comma should rest, I’ve done enough research to feel certain about ninety percent of my comma placements. (Is anyone ever really a hundred percent sure about commas?)

Seeing my old choices (and laughing about some of them) reminds me that, no matter how long you do something, you can still learn to improve. For example, I recently had a revelation about commas that helped me grow more confident about when to place them and when to banish them.

It Helps to Understand Why We Do Things

Official comma law states that a comma should be used in sentences where two independent clauses are joined by connectors (such as and, or, and but). The comma should be placed at the end of the first phrase, before the connector.

One thing I’ve noticed since I started editing for other authors is that no one seems entirely sure when they’re connecting two independent clauses or creating a list. So as a result, people tend to throw commas before any and, or, and but that appears in a sentence, just to be safe.

Looking over my own work, I notice that I sometimes put a comma before these words in long sentences and sometimes don’t. In recent months, I have spent a lot of time comparing sentences, trying to figure out what made me put a comma in one place, but reject a comma in another place.

One day, I had an epiphany; I was putting my focus on the wrong aspect of the sentence. It isn’t the and or but that determines where the comma should go. It’s what lies on either side of it.

I went back and looked at the rule again and picked up something I guess I had forgotten; how do identify independent clauses.

It’s particularly amusing that I never picked up on this before, because I use the same rule for semicolons. If the phrase on either side can stand alone, you can’t use a comma; you need a semicolon.

If the phrase on either side of an and or but can stand alone, then it needs a comma.

Most interestingly, I seem to have instinctively realized this because about seventy-five percent of the time I already placed my commas this way. The rare instances I didn’t are now easy to spot (and fix).

While Teaching, We Do Learn

I think the main reason I started questioning my comma placement was because I started editing for other authors. Part of that process involves picking up on an author’s voice and trying to enhance it while still applying the rules of grammar (and breaking them only when appropriate). Commas are one of the main ways an author can express their stylistic voice – and I think that’s one of the main reasons people argue about them so often.

While I sometimes adopt a devil-may-care attitude with my own work (I have only myself to answer to, after all), I’m far more diligent when I’m working for someone else. These authors entrust me with their work, after all. And while no editor can claim a perfect success rate (I’ve seen traditionally published books with glaring grammatical errors), I still want to be as accurate as possible.

One of my biggest challenges has been trying to balance correct comma placement with the voice and style used by my clients. Blanket applying the rules doesn’t always work with creative writing, and if an editor can’t recognize that, they’re going to give pretty stilted feedback. But sometimes following certain styles felt like steering my clients wrong.

Hence the deep dive.

I’m not sure what finally made things click for me. But now I at least feel like I can give my authors the details they need to make informed decisions.

And in the mean time, I’ve deleted and repositioned several of my own comma placements just in time for my upcoming release!

Share your recent literary revelations in the comments.

6 Replies to “Comma, Comma, Comma Clarification”

  1. Ahhhhh the commas. As an English teacher and a writer, I can’t begin to tell you how often I (to this day) have to pause and review the rules.

    Going back to read “old” writing is a combination of amusing and painful for me. It also makes me grateful that I ended my love affair with adverbs. Picture me rolling my eyes at myself from twenty years ago!

    1. I feel this! XD There are things I have to look up every. time! And there are times when I’m so sure, but I just second guess myself until I finally do the google search. I certainly have some untouchable old stuff, but it’s nice that the newer stuff is still pretty solid! :D

  2. I am also sensitive to comma use. Left unedited, I tend to ramble on. And that typically means lots of commas. I’m trying to train myself to look for an overabundance of commas, and interpret that as an opportunity to break up the sentence into more manageable bits.

    1. I should also adopt this philosophy. Though I’m finding in my old work I often don’t have enough commas, which is a different kind of rambling all together ^^;;

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