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Comma Usage Made Simple

Don't they drive you nuts?

You can visit all the rules of style you want, and you can readall the books and articles you want. You'll still be confused.You'll see inconsistency. You'll see experts who don't agreewith each other. And, you'll pull out your hair. Unless you'reme, since my hair's falling out all by itself. I think it'd dothat even if I weren't an editor hunting down errant commas.

Well, folks, here are some rules. A bare minimum. Internalizethese and ignore everybody else.

(1) Never put a comma between a subject and a verb. It's alwayswrong. The dog, barked. What is that? Idiocy. Read it aloud,and pause at the comma. Don't you feel stupid?

(2) If you want to separate a clause, put a comma on both sidesof it. Otherwise, no commas at all. "The dog, who held a bonein his mouth, ran to the porch." See how there's a comma onboth sides? That's because you could skip that whole clauseentirely and it'd still be a complete sentence. "The dog ran tothe porch."

If I delete the first comma, I have to delete the second one.You decide which looks best, two commas or none. But, one commadoesn't work. Try deleting either one and reading the resultaloud, remembering to pause at the comma. It's a wreck, isn'tit? You don't talk like that, so don't write like that.

(3) "He saw the cat, the cat was on the couch." This is not agood sentence. It's two sentences. The one before the comma hassubject/verb/object, and so does the one after the comma.

Run-ons like that can emphasize the run-on nature of acharacter's words or thoughts, but use the device sparingly.It's okay to break a rule, as long as you know what it is andwhy you're breaking it.

But in the example above, it'd be best to make them twosentences. If you find you just can't do it, consider asemicolon. Don't believe anyone who says semicolons aren'tallowed in fiction. I wouldn't use one in the sample sentence,but I've used them in other sentences I've written. Sparingly.

But for something as lame as a sentence about a cat on a couch,it's best to follow the rules exactly and make that two sentences.Do you really think your reader's gonna pop off for a beer or atoilet break between them and lose his place? As long as they'rein the same paragraph, they'll be read together.

(4) And finally, THE rule. It works for narrative and it worksfor dialogue. Read what you've written aloud. Wherever youwould pause for breath, whack in a comma. Because, you haveinternalized the rules. You've been speaking English all yourlife. But as an aspiring writer, you've been so busy trying tolearn "the rules" that you've forgotten the rule you've knownall along. And you DO know it.

If you'd like, you can look over some sentences in thepreceding paragraphs. You'll note some commas where they're notstrictly necessary. Often, it's where I begin a sentence with aconjunction, also an alleged no-no. But that device can be usedsparingly to emphasize a point. And when I do that, sometimes Iwhip in a comma for extra emphasis. A comma is a pause. That'swhat you should note if you indulge in this exercise. I'mpausing for emphasis. Read my sentences aloud. Pause at everycomma. The rhythm works. It's how I talk, and you won't be allfreaked out and confused as you listen because I paused infunny places.

Speaking as an editor, I run into a lot of writers who haveproblems with commas. Heck, speaking as someone who likes toread books and newspapers and magazines, I see commas wherethey shouldn't be, or missing commas where they should be. It'sbecause we're trying to be too fancy, drifting dangerously farfrom the "write what you know" mantra because we think we'restupid.

We're not stupid. As Sean Connery noted in FINDING FORRESTER,critics spend a day destroying what they couldn't create in alifetime. That's also what I think of people who want us tomemorize dozens of silly rules about commas. They're pauses.Nothing more, nothing less. Pause where you want to pause, notwhere you think someone else thinks you're supposed to pause.

Lemme remind you what writing is. Telepathy. I'm in China andyou probably aren't, and you're reading this many months afterI wrote it, but you know what I'm thinking. Stray commas wouldbe a barrier to that. Good writers don't like barriers.

Just remember that a comma is a pause, and pause wherever youthink you should. Blow off the rules -- there are too many andthey just keep changing -- and trust your gut. If you do that,I think you'll find that when you seek out publication, andfind yourself working with an editor, you'll hear very littleabout your commas.

Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?

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