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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Quintessential Comma Question

I have a love/hate relationship with commas.

Does anyone else feel this way? Do you ever comb through your manuscript and think, "wait, am I supposed to have a comma there?"
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Or maybe you're one of those who flings commas around like they're going out of style.

Either way, a few misplaced commas isn't going to be an automatic rejection from an agent, but it can be a red flag, especially if spotted in a query or the first few pages of your manuscript.

So, how can you be sure you're using commas correctly? Here are some hard and fast rules you can apply to your own writing.

1) Oxford Comma—I assume we've all heard of the Oxford comma that separates items in a list.
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Ex: I bought bread, milk, and eggs at the store. (Correct)

The Oxford Comma also helps to resolve ambiguity.

Ex: I went to the movies with my husband, Jay Leno and Keira Knightley. (Incorrect)

Now, I'm sure everyone knows that my husband is NOT Jay Leno, so therefore it should read like this:

Ex: I went to the movies with my husband, Jay Leno, and Keira Knightley. (Correct) Now there's no ambiguity, and it's clear that Jay Leno is NOT my husband. Just like Superman and Wonder Woman are NOT my parents.

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2) The Appositive—What the heck is an appositive? It is a noun or noun phrase that renames the noun right beside it.

Ex: I saw a cardinal, the state bird for Virginia, on my jog this morning.

Since "the state bird for Virginia" renames "cardinal", it therefore needs commas around it. Think of it as a group of words that could be put in parenthesis and have the same meaning—that would be your appositive.

Here's another example using nonrestrictive and restrictive appositives:

Ex: My sister, Laura, is running a race.  Since I only have one sister, I need commas around her name since it's a direct renaming of my sister. This is a nonrestrictive appositive.

 However, if I have two sisters, it would read like this: My sister Laura is running a race. This helps to establish which sister is running the race. This is a restrictive appositive.

3) String of Adjectives—When you use a string of adjectives, you normally separate them with commas.

Ex: She is tall, pretty, and blonde.

Ex: She wrapped herself in a soft, fuzzy blanket. A comma is needed because both adjectives describe the blanket. The blanket can be BOTH soft and fuzzy.

General rule: If you can reverse your adjectives or put "and" in place of the comma and the sentence still makes sense, then the comma is needed for the string of adjectives. She wrapped herself in a soft AND fuzzy blanket. OR She wrapped herself in a fuzzy, soft blanket. Still makes sense, right? Therefore, the comma is needed.

But sometimes, a comma is not needed in a string of adjectives: 
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Ex: The custom striped ottoman is in need of repair.
Ex: That was a tough three-mile jog.

If you try to put "and" in between the adjectives, it doesn't really make much sense. Ex: That was a tough AND three-mile jog. Doesn't sound natural, right? Therefore, you DO NOT need a comma.

4) Independent Clauses"An independent clause is a group of words with a subject and a predicate. It expresses a complete thought and can stand alone as a sentence."

*When you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, you need a comma.

Ex: I am happy to be here, and I am happy to help out.
Both independent clauses can stand on their own as a sentence, therefore, a comma is needed.

You DO NOT need a comma if written like this:

Ex: I am happy to be here and happy to help out. 
There is no subject after the conjunction, therefore, that last part of the sentence in NOT an independent clause.

5) Adverbial Phrases—An adverbial phrase at the beginning of the sentence "sets the scene" for the sentence. A comma is needed after an adverbial phrase at the beginning of the sentence.

Ex: After breakfast, I will take a walk.
Ex: In my house, we like to celebrate holidays.
Ex: Under the basket, the bunny is hiding.

6) Direct Address When you directly address a person, a comma is needed.

Ex: Thank you, Laura.
Ex: Goodbye, Susan.
Ex: Helen, you are the best cook!
Ex: Should we go to a restaurant for dinner, John?

If you don't use a comma correctly in a direct address, someone could lose their life...

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So, that wraps up my comma explanation. But, when in doubt, I like to use a little thing called the internet to help me when I have a question about the dreaded comma. Here are some sites I frequent regularly when I'm editing my manuscript. Hopefully, these sites can help you, too.

Quick and Dirty Tips (and no, this is NOT a porn site): Grammar Girl explains when and where to use commas. Another great reference for anything grammar related. As it states on their website, "this is your #1 source for grammar and punctuation."

Questions for our readers: Any other grammar or punctuation that gives you pause? What do YOU have a love/hate relationship with?

**Disclaimer: I am still NOT a comma expert, nor do I pretend to be!! If you find mistakes in this post, please forgive me! :)


Liz A. said...

My 10th (and 11th) grade English teacher spent a lot of time drilling us on grammar. A lot of time. So, I'm fairly comfortable with commas (we spent probably a day or two on each number of your list).

Kristin Smith said...

@Liz: That's so great that you remember what she taught you! I sometimes wish I could go back to high school English so I could get a refresher course! :)

Janie Junebug said...

This post is excellent. You join me in my effort to save the world from bad grammar.


LD Masterson said...

An English professor once accused me of keeping a shaker of commas on my desk and just sprinkling them on my page when I was finished writing. But I've gotten better. Thanks for a good post.

Nidhi Singh said...
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