Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part I. Punctuation Basics

Chapter 2. Comma Problems

Commas are, understandably, the biggest bugaboo for writers. Not only are some situations of comma placement personal preference rather than hard rule, but different style guides also set out different rules.

Yet commas are also extremely important, since their placement can change the meaning of a sentence, as well as keep you from saying something unintentionally ridiculous.

Let’s look at an example to show you what I mean.

Betty insisted Edgar planned the bank robbery.

Betty, insisted Edgar, planned the bank robbery.

In the first sentence, Betty is saying Edgar was the mastermind. In the second sentence, Edgar is saying Betty was the mastermind.

Despite their fluidity, commas do come with some firm rules. In this chapter, I’m going to focus on the ones that matter most to us as fiction writers. If you get them correct, most people won’t notice that the others are missing. Your editor can then fix the other nit-picky comma areas in your book.

COMMA SPLICES MUST DIE

A comma splice is when you use a comma to connect independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as complete sentences) without using a conjunction (a word like andbut, or or). You’re splicing two full sentences together.

I don’t know what I was thinking, I shouldn’t have gone there.

You can fix a comma splice in three ways.

Add a conjunction: I don’t know what I was thinking, but I shouldn’t have gone there.

Replace the comma with a period: I don’t know what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have gone there.

Replace the comma with a semicolon: I don’t know what I was thinking; I shouldn’t have gone there.

Unless you’re writing for academia, I recommend not using a semicolon. We’ll take about semicolons more in the next chapter.

You’ll hear some authors claim that they’re using a comma splice because they want to create a sense that their character is rushing their words. Don’t do this. It doesn’t do what they want it to. It only makes them look like they don’t know how to use periods and commas properly. And it opens you up to complaints from readers who think you need a better edit or proofread of your book.

DO NOT SPLIT THE SUBJECT AND THE PREDICATE WITH A COMMA

This is true even if you’re using a compound subject.

But you might ask, “Don’t split the what?”

Every complete sentence needs two things: a subject and a predicate.

The subject is the thing the sentence is about. (Think “test subject” in an experiment.)

I walked to the store.

The brown puppy is cute.

Emily and Bob own the house.

Whales swim.

The predicate tells us something about the subject. It might tell us what the subject did, what it looks like, etc. (I like to remember this as a friend of prediction, which tells us something about the future.)

walked to the store.

The brown puppy is cute.

Emily and Bob own the house.

Whales swim.

The important thing to remember about the predicate is that it contains a verb. (A verb describes an action, state of being, or relationship between two things.) Walkedisown, and swim in the examples above are all verbs.

So, when I say not to split the subject and the predicate with a comma, this is what I’m telling you not to do.

The dog and the cat, were the best of friends despite their different species.

In this example, you shouldn’t use a comma. The dog and the cat are both the subject of the sentence, and the comma cuts them off from the verb (were) in the predicate.

USE COMMAS AROUND NON-RESTRICTIVE CLAUSES, INCLUDING THOSE THAT START WITH WHICH

non-restrictive clause is one the sentence doesn’t need to make sense. It merely provides additional information about a subject that’s already been clearly identified.

restrictive clause is one the sentence needs. Without it, the sentence won’t make sense or won’t say the same thing. It restricts the meaning in some way.

I’ll give you two examples of non-restrictive clauses.

The door, which looked to be 100 years old, squeaked when we opened it.

My cats, both declawed as kittens, still think they have claws and try to scratch the furniture.

To put this another way, if you can take out those extra words in the middle and the sentence still says what you meant it to, you need to set those extra words off with commas.

(Don't worry about the definition of a clause right now. We'll get to that later.)

Related to using commas around non-restrictive clauses is another rule...

When your independent clause is preceded by a dependent clause or a phrase, separate them with a comma.

We’ll talk about independent and dependent clauses more in Chapter 19. For now, just remember that an independent clause could exist as a full sentence without anything else and a dependent clause couldn’t.

Take a look at these two examples. I’ve bolded the independent clause and left the dependent clause plain.

Whenever you’re ready to go, I’ll start the car.

According to the weather forecast, we’ll be getting snow today.

WHAT ABOUT SERIAL COMMAS?

A serial comma involves placing a comma after every item in a series: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate, and cranberries.”

You could write this without the serial comma: “I love eating jelly beans, chocolate and cranberries.”

Serial commas aren’t mandatory, but they are recommended by most major style guides for a very simple reason—they eliminate the risk of being unintentionally funny or unintentionally unclear.

A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking and birthing babies.

Is it just me, or does that sound like she’s serving up roast baby for dinner? But add a serial comma and we have…

A housewife’s job involves more than cleaning, cooking, and birthing babies.

Now we have a clear tribute to mothers rather than cannibalism.

The only thing worse than being boring is being unintentionally funny. Once people laugh at you, that’s all they’re going to remember about you. They at least forget about you if you’re boring.

I live by the better safe than sorry rule. If I always use a serial comma, I never run the risk of leaving it out when I should have put it in. The only time you should leave serial commas out is if your publisher specifically requests that you do so or the style guide you’re working with specifically says to avoid them.