The Common Comma

There are a million rules out there, okay maybe not a million.  In writing though, there are a few that repeat all the time.  Starting out writing, if you weren’t an English major, can be difficult.  When do you use a comma in writing?  I am by no means an expert, but I have found some useful rules that made my life easier.  This list is not exhaustive, but it has the rules that I most commonly use in writing.

First things first: a common is not meant to join independent clauses, it is meant to separate.  Semicolons are the opposite.

  •  When you write a list of descriptive words use a comma.  Mary decided that she needed new shoes, a new purse, and a new dress.
  • Use a comma when you have two or more adjectives in a row to avoid confusion.  He was a short, balding man. If you can put an and between the words add a comma.
  • Use a comma when writing a tag line followed by an action.  “Please don’t do that,” said Liz, jumping off the couch.  OR “Why do you need that,” she asked, still not understanding.
  • Don’t use a comma when the tag line includes a descriptive word.  “Sorry,” Lisa said sadly.
  • Don’t take two independent clauses and join them without a conjunction. (The comma-splice)  Conjunctions: “and, but, nor, for, so, yet” or subordinating conjunctions: “after, although, because, before, how, if, once…”  Examples.  Fred couldn’t understand why Liz was so mad, but he certainly understand why she wouldn’t be happy.
  •  Use a comma to separate and introductory statement.  Before she could get into the car, the heavens opened and drenched her new shoes.
  • Use a comma to separate a parenthetical element.  (I know what the heck is that?) These are the statements that could be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning.  Liz was wearing blue, which was her favorite color, knowing that Frank loved her in it.
  • When offsetting quotes use a comma.  “What I really want to know,” said Liz, “ is whether or not you are planning to take me to the dance.”
  • Don’t use a comma with quoted items.  As my mother always says “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

 What comma rules do you use that are not on my list?  Or do you have a question on the use of a comma that maybe myself or one of my readers can answer?

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Your Personal Art to Editing

Editing is an art apparently.  For  those that follow me, you have heard my worries on self editing and my weaknesses to do so.   Today though, I have come to a conclusion.  Maybe it’s more of an epiphany.  Grammar rules are the same everywhere but how you edit your own work or what rules stick out to you are part of the “Art of Editing.”

I joined an online critique group.  Maybe it’s more like a massive online critique community.  Everyone said my story “had potential,” “was off to a great start,” or “needs some polishing.”  Two out of four people literally just pointed out questions that certain paragraphs brought up.  I expected that because I had cut out two previous chapters based on another suggestion from a critique.  Those two critiques helped me see my stories holes and did not tear me down.  I am on my way to progress because of their help.  However (you had to know that was coming,) there were two people that focused on grammar – or so their closing comments suggested.

The two that focused on grammar actually did not point out very many grammar mistakes as I had anticipated.  Yes, they did find my weakness with commas and my apparent ongoing battle with spellchecker.  Yes, I know that chain and change are not the same thing.  Too bad spellchecker did not and I couldn’t see my error.  One person specified that I need to spell-check my work.  How does one spell check a word that isn’t spelled wrong?  <Sigh> I think he meant proof read, although I had – several times. So anyway.  The second person sent me a massive rule set of how to use commas.  The issue I had was that only one of the five rules applied based on his assessment.  At first look of each of these assessments I could feel my heart drop and feared that I was a lost cause.  The second suggestion that got me was to edit, but not just edit, to read each sentence backwards.  This is probably very sound advice, but I will lose my ever-loving mind if I do this.

So, editing is an art.  Some people’s pet peeves are story lines and issues within plots and characters.  Some people have issues with not grammar but comma’s.  Others will be appalled by an incorrect word – that yes agreed should not occur.  Having a pet peeve for editing could very well blind you to other obvious issues.  How do you become well rounded in the world of self editing?  Should I read my manuscript 3 times printed, 1 time out loud, and a 3rd backwards? How do I keep my eyes from glazing over?

Pulling out my hair, I am becoming so paranoid with grammar that I am missing simple things such as an incorrect word, thank you spell-check.

Additional editing help:

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

What is your art of editing?

Grammar and ‘The Rules’ continued…

I took off a week from my blog.  Why, you ask?  Because i was going to write.  Well, as it turned out I did not. But I still enjoyed my week, minus the shootings in Aurora Colorado.  That is closer to my house then I would like.  There is just so much crazy in the world; it’s odd how I don’t escape to my writing more often.  Writing is supposed to be fun, too bad when it comes to editing it becomes more of a chore and I just can’t motivate myself enough.

I need a miracle, or a VERY large piece of chocolate.

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Thank goodness we live in the day of technology.  As most writers know, there are critiques, and suggestions, and books everywhere. I can’t begin to tell you what are the best or the worst. What I can say is that there are a few things that have helped me.
There are several books everyone says a writer to should read. Who is everyone?  Well, everyone that thinks they know the best.  One book that I hear often is Strunk and white’s Elements of Style.

I do agree that Strunk and White have some great rules of grammar but i don’t feel like they really touch on everything a writer needs to be aware of.  First being – what is a comma splice.  Granted they do touch on proper comma usage.  Still how would I know that I use comma splices? Granted not all comma splices are errors – too bad for me I can’t get my critique group to buy that.

Other resources include on the internet.

Rules on what to capitalize

All Rules of grammar for the student

Rules to not doom your work from Writers Digest

Does anyone else have great resources they have found throughout their writing adventures?

Grammar and ‘The Rules’

Does anyone else ever hear, “These are the rules and you never break them-except when…”

What does that mean?  Where do you go with that?  Are the rules to help avoid mistakes or to simply sell a million books on “The Rules?”

I find myself asking the question of what rules are golden, which ones are someones opinion and which rules are really ways to help in the editing process.  I have been told a few times that grammar is key.  The words that ‘no agent will even look at you if you don’t have impeccable grammar’ have been said by people other then the loathsome critique group. How true is this?  I don’t know but I can offer some help or advice on where to go to help.

I took the words to heart, “No agent will touch your manuscript no matter how well the story is written if grammar isn’t perfect.”  It stung and then I decided to get over it.  Maybe this person had a point?  Although, as of right now my grammar still did not look as horrid as said person had lead me to believe.  But that aside,  I bought a style manual first.  Strunk and White’s to be exact.  Do i find it helpful?  Well yes, a little.  The sad news is I was already using a lot of their rules, but there were some helpful tips.  Something I never saw was the rule or definition of a ‘comma splice.’

You may be asking what I found myself asking, “What is a comma splice?”  Well my fellow writer, it is simply the misuse of a comma to join two complete sentences.  Okay, fine.  I will admit that I have done this.  I remove a word because I felt it was over used and pointless and ta-da I made a comma splice.  Who knew?  The sad truth is that the person I had helping me claimed my writing to be hard to read all thanks to the comma splice.  Lucky for me I had three others that didn’t notice the issue. Alas they are readers not writers, so I chose to take this advice and work on removing the offensive sentences that caused so much grief.  Or that was my intent.  I have yet to master identifying a comma splice and all it’s glory.

So here I am, combing my manuscript with a fine tooth comb over one reviewers comment and I am not entirely sure I am doing any good.  Perhaps i should find an additional style manual but will they touch on every rule out there or not? Strunk and White were said to be top.

Moving on …

Next I was told to look at books on craft.  How does one narrow down which book to choose when there are no less then fifty written on the subject and very few are recent publications.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, has said that the publishing industry is changing.   Well, yes the industry is changing and some genres are being reinvented but on a whole most rules stay the same.  Do I need to read a hundred and fifty page book to tell me the basics?  No, I need cliffs notes of rules not to break based on genre.  Maybe we can start that?

At some point you can over analyze everything and stop writing.  By the time you are done ‘learning’ you might have lost your own voice.  I think if grammar is the worst mistake one makes, then you are doing well.  You can learn grammar – although from which source is best, I am not sure.   Is grammar enough to keep your story from ever seeing daylight?  Well, I will be researching this through different agents and let you know.

After all is said and done, the reality is, most books break rules.  People, real humans, do not speak perfectly so no characters do either.  Which rules are typo’s and which are intentional might be based on perspective of who is reading.  If that is the case, then finding and agent really is about numbers and finding the would be person who see’s your style.

If anyone else has useful information to share to the writing community please post it.  I am interested to hear what others have to say on grammar, rule breaking and getting a manuscript past the slush-pile purely based on these fundamental.  I would hope story is 90% of success but i am being lead to believe differently.  Although if we look at, most recently, Fifty Shades or Gray and Twilight, I am lead to believe I am correct.