Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Comma-Happy Writer

My post today is in response to a question I received about the proper use of commas:
I am "comma-happy." I love commas. I use them everywhere, as often as I can! I've been reading a lot, lately ... and often I see commas not being used in places where I would normally put them.

For instance, I thought I was supposed to put a comma before the word "too," or the word "also," at the end of a sentence. (e.g., You write, too?)

I also use commas to separate complete thoughts that are found in one sentence. (I could talk about commas all day, but I have to go to bed.) Or, I use one after a transitional word (or phrase) following a semicolon; but, it must precede the next complete thought. (sigh ...)

Overusing commas is, ahem, common among writers. As I noted in Self-Editing: Part 5, contemporary writing tends toward a more open style, with commas omitted that might be expected in a formal or literary style.

From The Chicago Manual of Style, here’s an example of close punctuation:

Babs had gone to Naples with Guido, and, when Baxter found out about it, he flew into a rage.

Open punctuation (modern style) calls for fewer commas:

Babs had gone to Naples with Guido, and when Baxter found out about it he flew into a rage.

The open, modern style just looks and reads better to most of us these days. A comma introduces a slight pause … and when you’re tearing along in a fast-paced action story, pausing is the last thing you want to do.

One cure for the comma-happy writer may be to write the first draft with almost no commas in it. Use the ones you must, such as the commas that separate dialogue from the dialogue tags:

It was Thoreau who wrote, “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels.”

“I hope you are not referring to me,” Garrett replied.

(In the example above, note that the comma goes inside the closing quotation mark. Periods and commas always precede closing quotation marks.)

Writers, while writing, often pause to think. It’s easy to type a comma each time you pause. It may even feel correct to do so.

Begin breaking the habit by forcing yourself to write without inserting commas even when you strongly feel the urge to do so. Then during the revision process, when you go back through and read what you wrote, you can plug in commas as required to avoid misreading.

For a good review of when and where to use commas, try "seven easy steps to becoming a comma superhero" from The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For a thorough discussion of when to use a comma with “too,” see Grammar Girl, Episode 157.

For a discussion of eliminating every comma that isn’t absolutely necessary for clarity or grammatical correctness, there’s my Self-Editing post from March.

I hope this helps you tame your comma-mania! :-)

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