Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pardon me, did someone drop a comma?

Did someone forget to tell me it’s comma appreciation month?

It started with an email from a new writer last week remarking on my use of commas in blog posts and asking for some advice about comma usage.

After I stopped inspecting the email to see if it had been sent by mistake, I responded by saying I’m hardly a comma expert. Yes, I’m the daughter of two teachers (one of whom taught middle school English for 30 years), and yes, I do have a degree in English Lit.

I’ve made my living as writer my whole adult life – first as a journalist, then in marketing/communications, and currently as a published author – and the only thing I can tell you about commas is that no one really knows all the rules.

Sourcebooks gave me two different copy editors for Believe it or Not and Making Waves. I recently worked with a third editor for a top secret new project I’m not allowed to tell you about yet.

Not one of them edited my comma usage in quite the same way.

So while I do my best with commas, and I like to think I have a decent grasp of where they go, I operate mostly on instinct. And you know what? Unless your use of punctuation is truly, truly abysmal, the odds are slim it’s the sort of thing that will preclude you from getting an agent or a book deal.

I see a lot of new writers stressing about nitpicky details like this – comma usage or manuscript formatting or font choice. Trust me when I say there are better places to focus your energy when it comes to writing. Like, I don’t know…WRITING?!

Do you feel like you have a good grasp of comma usage? Are there areas where you feel less sure of your skills? Got any recommendations for good punctuation guides? Please share!

For now, I’ll leave you with two comma-related graphics that made me smile on Facebook this week:


Hannah said...

LOL, I've never seen the last one. That's good. That's very good. :D

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

Love commas... and after 18 years teaching English and three degrees, I should know how to use them.

But they do not make a manuscript good. Yes, when used incorrectly, they might interfere with clarity, but content and style affect the reading of a manuscript far more.

BTW, I do know that the second paragraph begins with a fragment. :-)

Kameliahunn said...

Thanks for the great post! I've recently noticed that I seem to have a strong inclination for commas. I find myself going back over what I've written to remove some of them. I'm working on my first manuscript to submit for publication, so its good to hear from you and Shakespeare that commas shouldn't be a problem if I don't use all of them right. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

My favorite line related to the necessity of the serial comma is from a book that came through the proofreading department at my last job: "I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

Very similar to the stripping JFK and Stalin. :)

Anonymous said...

Say "yes" to the Oxford comma!! Leaving out this comma is one of my pet peeves. It's the number one mistake on the numerous (oh, so many)correspondences and reports that cross my desk. It makes me want to get all stabby with my Sword Gryffindor letter opener.

Maybe I'll just print this picture and give it to those who leave off the final serial comma instead.

Matthew MacNish said...

Joe looks pretty good in a pink thong, though.

Sarah Allen said...

Wow, this is freaking hilarious :) Love it!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Unknown said...

Love it! I'm a fan of the Oxford comma.

Anonymous said...

Go, Team Oxford Comma! Especially now that I've been scarred for life by the vision of Joe-in-a-G-string. Blarrgh! :-p

Shain Brown said...

I stumbled across a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I have to say it is extremely fun, and definitely worth checking out.

Peter said...

And don't forget Capitalization is also important...hence the difference between 'I'm going to help Uncle Jack off his horse' and 'I'm going to help Uncle jack off his horse'

Lisa Ahn said...

Oh, commas. How they haunt me.

I love your observation that no one exactly agrees on comma usage. I'll sleep better now. Though I might not get that picture of Stalin out of my head.

Laura Maylene said...

I think there are some hard and fast rules involving commas while the rest is more fluid. If I'm going to be my perfectly honest and snobby self, when I read the work of a writer who clearly has no clue about commas, little can distract me more. But in many cases, comma use can be subjective. Or at least that's what I told myself as I proofed my first galley.

Laura Maylene said...

Also, even "correct" comma usage cannot fix clunky sentences that the writer did not proofread to make sure they are real sentences. (See above.) So yeah. Don't stress too much over commas.

jesse said...

It's a well know fact that when he was off camera JFK used his "talents" to make Nixon sweat, during their infamous debate.