Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The intricacies of commas

Here’s an entertaining and possibly useful post about commas:

You win this round comma.

Did you immediately get the joke in the title? Like: You win this round, comma. versus You win this round comma. I have to admit, I didn’t get it at first. I just found that sentence confusing, full stop.

Turns out it’s based on this joke:

And then the punctuation jokes continue:

[Oxford comma laughing in the distance.]

[Vocative comma wondering what Oxford comma thinks it’s doing here.]

And okay, yes, I thought that was all pretty funny because what can I say? I appreciate punctuation humor.

Anyway, the post is largely about the somewhat subtle-ish use of commas in restrictive vs nonrestrictive clauses and why you really, really cannot just stick a comma in where you would breathe. I will pause here to wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve said to a student, “No, actually, you can’t just stick a comma in whenever you would take a breath. That is a completely unreliable method of putting commas into your paper. Sorry.”

Anyway, the post offers various examples, like so:

Restrictive—The bread that I bought yesterday is stale.

Not the bread I bought today, or the day before yesterday. The phrase “that I bought yesterday” is essential; it restricts the sentence to just that loaf of bread.

Nonrestrictive—The bread, which I bought yesterday, is stale.

The commas tell us there’s only one loaf of bread. That I bought it yesterday is informative but not essential, since readers just need to know it is stale.

The post also points out the [American English] use of “that” in restrictive versus “which” in nonrestrictive clauses, which I eventually internalized after three or so copy editors changed half my “whichs” to “thats,” or the other way around (I can’t remember my default before I started to follow the rule).

I never think “Is this clause restrictive?” by the way. I just put “which” after a comma. If there’s no comma, I put “that.” In order to use this shorthand, easy method, you have to have a feel for whether the comma goes there, so without that, I guess you can spend a lot of time asking yourself, “Uh, is this clause restrictive?”

From the linked post:

But is it that big a deal if I mess it up? Most of the time, no. Most of the time, context will help readers autocorrect the mistake and infer what you meant. Other times, getting this wrong will create ambiguity, or worse, confusion. All of the time, it creates extra work, and if part of your reader’s brain is busy trying to decode syntax-level meaning, that part of the brain cannot fall in love with your protagonist, your plot, or your prose.

I agree with this. I think a lot of writers make errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax, and word choice that cause brief confusion and extra work for their readers and they should all do their best to learn better.

However, as we all know, there are many usage choices for commas that are genuinely a matter of artistic judgment. In particular, the copy editor for one of my more recent books … I guess that was probably for WINTER OF ICE AND IRON … took out a lot of my commas after introductory clauses.

I was following the general “put a comma after introductory clauses” rule.

She was following the specific “short prepositional introductory clauses do not need a comma” rule.

After consideration, I let most of her changes stand. What’s more, going over the copy edits for that manuscript shifted my general inclination. Now, unless doing so improves clarity or rhythm, I don’t put a comma after a short prepositional introductory clause. That is, I now prefer not to use a comma in sentences like, “At last the warleader dismounted.” or “In the winter country we can evade them and stay out of their reach.” I’m still a little surprised that one copy editor could permanently shift my preference, but apparently so.

Another context in which commas are pretty much a matter of artistic taste is acknowledgments, such as “Yes, sir.” I very strongly prefer including a comma there, but plenty of writers disagree, as quickly becomes obvious if you read space opera and military SF. Also historical military fiction, I presume, though I haven’t specifically noticed. The only time I wouldn’t is if a character, speaking very fast, slurs the words together into “Yessir.”

Similarly, I think it’s crucial to use a comma in “Hi, Bob” even though lots of people don’t bother when dashing off a quick email.

So the linked article is pretty good, and now I’m curious: do you even notice whether there’s a comma in “Yes, sir” in military fiction, and does it bug you at all when the author disagrees with your preference?

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6 Comments The intricacies of commas

  1. Robert

    I don’t think “Yes, sir” or “Yes sir” has that much impact on my reading. I do, though, prefer commas after introductory clauses. “At last the warleader dismounted” just feels rushed, somehow.

  2. Pete Mack

    I would definitely follow W.E.B Griffin on “yes sir”, and leave out the comma. “Yes sir” in the military means, “Your order is understood and will be carried out.” “Yes, sir” means “I understand.”

  3. mona

    Hah! What a great joke.

    “Yes, sir” unless “Yessir!” A space and no comma makes me pause.

    “Hi, Bob” in the greeting of an email seems wrong to me. My brain thinks of it like a letter wherein the comma should follow the name— “Dear Mary,”

  4. Hanneke

    My comma sense agrees with Mona.
    I also like Oxford commas, and don’t find the comma after a short introductory clause necessary.
    I don’t like the sense of a pause being inserted into the smooth flow of the sentence if you add a comme after “At last, the warleader dismounted.” That makes it sound as if it was at long, long, last, finally – it puts too much emphasis on the little introductory fragment.

    This sort of discussion makes me think about the effects of my bilingual language experience. The vocabularies are clearly separate, and some parts of sentence structure and order are clearly different and recognised as such. But how much do the details of different structures in one language influence my tolerance for similar things in the other language, when they are borderline?
    If I’m used to not seeing a comma after a short introductory phrase in Dutch, does that influence how acceptable I find that practise in English?

    Dutch and English are closely enough related that I get the feeling that rules about punctuation, which looks the same in both languages, may not be archived separately in my brain. I.e. rules about a comma after a (short) introductory clause; or whether the punctuation belongs inside or outside the “quotation marks”, when the speech is a sentence in itself (inside) or just a fragment (outside, like above); or whether you need a full stop after an abbreviation ending in a full stop point. Those rules might differ, but I have honestly no idea, as they seem to be shelved in one spot mentally, without any labels tagging them as Dutch or English. While anything letter-based is recognisable as one or the other or both.

  5. Rachel

    Mona, I write one million emails to students at the beginning of each semester, and I greatly prefer a comma in the “Hi, Bob” position. So my solution is to cheat. I write salutations like this:

    Hi, Bob —

    Text of email.

    The dash stands in for the second comma. This has turned out to be the punctuation that is most acceptable to my eye when writing casual emails. I offer it here just in case anyone else likes the way that looks.

  6. Kathryn McConaughy

    I am very sensitive to commas. They’ve gotten me into trouble… As a teenager, the vast majority of what I read what from nineteenth century England, so I internalized their comma norms – which, surprise surprise, are not the same as modern America comma norms. I went a few rounds with my first copy-editor on that.

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