Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

For love of the comma

I found this article via a link from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog:

For Love of the Comma

What I’ve learned 18 books later is that, while other punctuation has a distinct and undebatable purpose, the comma remains ambiguous. A period signals a stop. A question mark demands an answer. An exclamation point should be used sparingly and never in threes. …

The comma is an enigma. Loved and loathed. Bound by personal taste rather than rigid rule books.

In a social media–saturated world where everybody is screaming the loudest that they’re right and you’re wrong, the comma lives in gray areas of uncertainty. It asks us to take a breath, reflect, and listen. It reminds us to consider words and meaning. For a small piece of punctuation, that’s a profound gift.

Entertaining essay! Fine, okay, sure, I agree the comma is ambiguous in the sense that the overall rule is: Use them for clarity first, follow rules second. Some of the rules offer less wiggle room than others, however. Comma rules that are unbreakable:

a) commas must be used in a series of more than two items.

b) commas must be used to set off parenthetical phrases (unless you’re using something else to set off those phrases).

c) commas must be used to set off transitional expressions such as “however” and “moreover.”

d) commas MUST be used appropriately to begin or end dialogue. Nothing looks worse than incorrect periods in dialogue.

But there are a whole bunch of places I think require artistic judgment, because it’s surprising how often you want to break the rules:

e) commas should not be used between two complete sentences, unless you want to introduce a rushed feel to dialogue or thoughts, and then you might use comma splices to achieve that.

f-a) commas should be used in front of conjunctions that introduce independent clauses, unless the clauses are very short

f-b) ditto, unless the sentence is really complicated and has a lot of truly crucial commas in it already. In the latter case, rather than taking the sentence apart, you may choose to omit a usually required comma, and this particular kind of comma may be a good choice.

f-b) ditto, unless you want to promote that comma to a semicolon. This is sure to be queried by a copy editor (as is most of this stuff, I guess), but if you decide you really do want that semicolon there, then you can do that. It’ll produce a slightly exaggerated pause and emphasize both the clause before and especially the clause after the semicolon. I got this technique from CJ Cherryh and think of her when I stet a semicolon of this kind during copy edits.

g) commas should be used between adjectives unless you choose not to put them there. Either choice will produce a distinctive feel to the prose. I’ve done it both ways, most dramatically in The City in the Lake, where I omitted most of those commas because I liked the more poetic feel this gave the prose.

h) commas can be used to set off conversational tags, unless you choose to omit them. In general, I think it looks better to say “Now, now, Bob. Don’t lose your cool.” than to omit the tag commas. I think it looks MUCH better to say “Yes, sir.” than omit the comma. But certainly I’ve seen writers choose to omit it.

i) commas can be omitted after short introductory clauses, and how short is short is up to the writer.

Which leads into this comment from Kristine Kathryn Rusch about the linked article. The author of the comma essay, Kate Dyer-Seeley, says:

Copy editors have differing and unwavering beliefs how best to use the comma. When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. 

And KKR responds:

She tried to learn what her editors “wanted” when it came to the comma, rather than telling the original editors that she believed in the introductory comma, at least for the piece she had written for those editors. Dyer-Seeley’s subconscious had believed the introductory comma needed to be there, so she had put it there. And then meekly removed it when asked by someone who “was in charge” or “knew better.”

I have three responses to this conundrum:

First: The copy editor does know the correct punctuation rules, or should. The author should cherish the opportunity to think carefully about breaking those rules and may very well decide that the nonstandard punctuation originally chosen may in fact distract the reader or otherwise not be worth pursuing.

Second: Sometimes the author is right about the artistic effect and in that case KKR is correct: the author should defend her own usage by profligate use of “stet.”

Third: Sometimes, however, the punctuation in question is actually pretty trivial and the author need not feel committed to defending it. It’s okay to use or not use commas after some or most introductory clauses. That’s all right either way, as long as the author doesn’t think it matters all that much.

There have definitely been times I have let a suggested change go forward because I just felt, Well, whatever, this is fine either way. That isn’t even rare! It happens dozens of times during copy edits. I’ve had editors email me about some last-minute sentence level thing and I have literally emailed back, Either way is fine with me, whichever you prefer.

My last copy editor took out a good many introductory commas and I thought that was perfectly okay. I liked the sentences fine the way she preferred, let her take out most of those commas, and decreased my use of commas after introductory clauses not because I let my artistic judgment get overruled by the copy editor, but because I let my judgment get influenced by the copy editor. Which is fine! Everyone’s judgment gets influenced by all kinds of things! The important thing is to make a deliberate decision based on how the change feels to you artistically, not cling like grim death to the way you’ve done it in the past because you just don’t want to consider alternatives when those are suggested.

… So, anyway, both KKR’s post and the original post about commas are worth reading. And if you now find you pay a lot more attention to commas in the next book you read, sorry! I’m sure punctuation will once again fade into the “feel” and “sound” of the prose shortly and become much less visible.

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