The Printed Fox: For Writers, By Writers | 5 Ways Writers Turn Commas Into Sociopathic Sentence Serial Killers

Sunday, March 3, 2013

For Writers, By Writers | 5 Ways Writers Turn Commas Into Sociopathic Sentence Serial Killers

If I had to choose just one of my many Punctuation Pet Peeves as the end-all of my peeves, it would be the complete and shameless way people hack sentences to sad, incomprehensible pieces through their wanton use of the comma.

Sacrificial aftermath at the altar of poor punctuation:
Where commas are forced to do violence
against unsuspecting sentences.

Poor little comma. Its use is supposed to be like a hint of rouge on the cheeks to highlight cheekbones and mimic the maidenly flush of youth and exuberance, not laid on thick as a whore's lipstick.

And it's definitely not supposed to be used like a butcher knife!

Here are 5 Ways the Comma is Misused, or How To Use a Frickin' Comma

1.) Introducing descriptive clauses preceding the noun
Okay, so if you don't know what a clause is, let alone a descriptive one, shame on you. This is basic grammar. If you're going to be writing things like, y'know, sentences, then you definitely should know the different parts making up sentences and how to identify them.

Proper grammar and parts of the sentence are different posts. I'll get to it. For now, let's focus on the comma.

1. "She wore the only hoodie that was clean."
2. "She wore the only hoodie, which was clean."

Looking at them, you can easily see what each sentence means. But how to construct it? Too often I've seen, "She wore the only hoodie, that was clean," and it's so aggravating! Likewise, I've seen, "She wore the only hoodie which was clean." ARGH! So what's the problem?

"Which" is used with nonessential description and requires a comma. "That" is used with essential description. The point is, if you don't absolutely need the detail following the comma, it's a nonessential descriptive clause and you can theoretically drop it and put a period in its place. "She wore the only hoodie," works fine on its own because you don't need to know that it was clean. Mentioning that it's clean is just a nice detail.

However, saying she wore the only hoodie that was clean lets you know that there are plenty of other hoodies. The fact this hoodie is clean is essential to let the reader know it was one choice among many, and this was the deciding factor. In this case, it does matter the hoodie was clean.

2.) Commas before essential identifiers, clauses, and phrases

Many women want to be beautiful like the actress, Audrey Hepburn.

Now, we all know the sentence isn't addressing Ms. Hepburn herself. In a sentence in which you're addressing a person, yes, a comma comes before their name.

The comma here says that either you're talking to Ms. Hepburn (although, if you are, where the hell are your quotation marks?!), or that the qualifier is unimportant and can be dropped. If it's dropped, which actress are we talking about here? The qualifier is essential to make the sentence work, so the comma implying it is unnecessary is wrong. It's very necessary. It lets the reader know which actress many women want to resemble.

Correct: Many women want to be beautiful like the actress Audrey Hepburn.

3.) Commas used as a parenthetical expression

I see varieties of this everywhere. Seeing it misused is like chewing foil.

You can have a parenthetical expression without actually using parentheses, did you know? A parenthetical phrase is a phrase or clause in a sentence which adds value to the sentence, but is not necessarily vital to the main idea.

"Every day at 12:30, whether she likes it or not, I put my daughter down for a nap."

The parenthetical expression is "whether she likes it or not." You can test it by dropping everything in-between commas. "Every day at 12:30 I put my daughter down for a nap." The main idea is my daughter's daily nap at noon-thirty.

How to do it wrong:
"Every day at 12:30, whether she likes it or not I put my daughter down for a nap."
"Every day at 12:30 whether she likes it or not, I put my daughter down for a nap."

I blame vernacular and the 21st century's evolution of chatspeak. Everything from text messaging to Twitter to chat programs, shorter is better. It also affects how we hear the rhythm of words in our head. So how do you tell where to put the comma?

Try this example:
"The dog owners who couldn't get their dogs to learn the new trick stayed late for extra training."

It's a bit to take in, isn't it? So where's the parenthetical phrase? Is it talking about all the dog owners, or only those who couldn't get their dogs to learn the new trick?

If you're talking about all of the dog owners, your phrase needs two commas: one before, and one after the phrase to set it apart as additional description.

"The dog owners, who couldn't get their dogs to learn the new trick, stayed late for extra training."

How to do it wrong:
"The dog owners who couldn't get their dogs to learn the new trick, stayed late for extra training."
"The dog owners, who couldn't get their dogs to learn the new trick stayed late for extra training."

When reading it, I don't care if you naturally pause in only one place. There are two commas. Period.

4.) Separating components of a compound predicate

Writers these days are very fond of having their poor characters do too many things all at once. They fly down the stairs while throwing on a sweatshirt and talking on the phone. They lean forward and sigh and marvel at their lover's incredible necking skills. They get up, put on shoes, and open a door. All at once. I've seen it.

Makes for some really awkward reading. Have you ever tried to get up, put on your shoes, and open a door all at once?

"Well, Delena, they're not really doing it at the same time. It's in the order listed."

Yeah, I agree with you. The assumption is that they're doing what's physically possible. However, how it's written tells a different story, and oftentimes it comes down to how a writer's forcing the poor little comma to butcher a sentence. It's like those Facebook memes about telling Grandma to come eat, and inviting people to come eat Grandma. It's all in how you punctuate.

"She loved going to the park and chatted the whole way there."

The single subject ("she") has two predicate verbs ("loved" and "chatted"), and the verbs are separated by a conjunction ("and"). There is no comma unless the subject is mentioned a second time.

Okay. One of the broadest rules of thumb is to take what comes after the comma and either drop it or --in the case of a compound sentence-- replace the comma with a period. If your simpler sentences work properly, your comma usage is also correct. [This is, of course, a very broad assumption! As with anything, particularly grammatical rules (<--see my parenthetical expression there?), there are exceptions!]

How to do it wrong:
"She loved going to the park, and chatted the whole way there."

We're taught to put a comma before "and" when listing things, and it somehow bled over into treating compound sentences like lists of items. I shudder at the practice. Why it's wrong: If you take the second half of your conjunction, "and chatted the whole way there," you cannot make this into a sentence by itself. Except in the rarest case (we'll get to Beginning Sentences with And, But, If, and Other Conjunctions in a later FWBW post), "and chatted the whole way there" would be a fragment.

If you're dead set on using a comma in this sentence, insert the subject a second time:
"She loved going to the park, and she chatted the whole way there."

See? Now apply the test. Drop the comma and add a period: "She loved going to the park. She chatted the whole way there."

5.) The Dreaded Oxford Comma

This one is where I put on my harsh Grammar Nazi face and shove my snooty nose way up in the air. The Oxford Comma, A.K.A The Harvard Comma, A.K.A The Serial Comma.

You've seen this one. You've used this one a lot. You've also likely done it wrong.

Okay, so here's the debate between The Associated Press Stylebook, and the Chicago Style manual and American Psychological Association formatting and style guide: the Associated Press says it's perfectly fine to omit the comma between the final two items in a list. Chicago and APA say it's totally not fine.

Here's why I agree with Chicago and APA:
"Today I went to the toy store, the grocery store, the bank, my landlord's office and Olive Garden."

Okay, so you know that I went to five places today. If I said, "Today I went to my landlord's office and Olive Garden," you'd know exactly what I did, and most likely the order in which I did it all. Associated Press says this is perfectly fine, since the agreed assumption is that I did all these things in a specific order.

Chicago and APA say no, that sentence says I went to three places and then went to two places simultaneously. The "and" without a preceding comma in a list implies the two items joined by the conjunction go together.

Here's one that's a little more muddled:
"I bagged kiwis, bananas, beets, grapes and nuts before I left."

Okay, so did I bag all those foods individually, or did I put grapes and nuts in the same bag before I left? To be honest, there's no way you can know for sure. You can only assume. And we all know what assuming makes us, right?

So which is it? Based on the way the sentence is constructed, there's no way to know. You can point to it and say, "No, you bagged grapes and nuts separately, otherwise there'd be an 'and' before 'grapes.'"

Well, no. Not if I bagged grapes and nuts together.

See the problem? It might not seem like a big problem, but when your job as a writer is to paint a picture, communicate, and convey meaning, you've done nothing but confound your reader. That's a no-no.

So be clear. Embrace the Oxford Comma. I'll even let you call it the 'serial comma' if you really want to.


So there you go. Five ways writers force innocent little commas to become mass murderers of beautiful, unsuspecting sentences. 

And for those of you who still say that comma usage is subjective and since every editor's different there's no real correct way to use commas, I'd say you're right. 

Except that you're wrong. There definitely is a correct and an incorrect way to use a comma. Sure, there is some creative license for comma usage in certain instances, but "creative license and subjectivity" is not a get out of jail free card. I've just listed five incorrect ways commas are used. I promise you, there are more out there. And you're probably doing them, too.