editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Paws Here

This ia a comma.       This is Oscar Wilde

Hello all.

As many of you have no doubt noticed, the first Writer’s Co-op anthology, Down the Rabbit Hole, is finally complete and ready for release in a few short weeks. Ably midwifed by our own Curtis Bausse, it is a fascinating and engaging collection.  I think you’ll like it. As one of the editors, I was impressed with the quality of writing throughout and the diversity of voices.

Editing is fun. It really is. It’s also a tough job. It’s challenging enough when it’s your own manuscript. No matter how many times you go over it, there’s always another question, another uncertainty. Is that the best word? Is my dialogue believable? Can I get rid of that phrase? (Or paragraph? Or chapter?) Am I using that semicolon correctly?

When you’re editing someone else’s work, the responsibilities multiply. Not only are you trying to polish the writing to a high gloss, you have to do so without wrecking the original. You have to respect the author’s own voice, her own style. It can be a tricky balancing act. There are rules for good writing, of course, but much of it is still subjective. (I confess to having a heavy hand. My first impulse is to rewrite, and I apologize if anyone found my suggestions, eh, overbearing.)

On the subject of rules, I want to take a minute to discuss that smallest bit of stigmeological property: the comma. I know, I know – the comma is not the smallest punctuation mark in terms of ink. That honor would go to the period, natch. But the period is a weightier mark in terms of purpose and effect. It denotes, as writers of Commonwealth English know all too well, a full stop. End of the line. No more sentence beyond this point.

The comma is a more subtle and ambiguous creature. Sure, there are some hard and fast rules, but there are times when its use – or lack of same  – can be somewhat discretionary, a style choice. Hence the potential confusion.

The word comma comes from the Greek, komma, meaning “a bit that is cut off.” Originally, Aristophanes of Byzantium (no, not the bawdy Athenian comic playwright, the other Aristophanes) invented a system of dots that could be included in a written text to signify the amount of breath that a reader should take between phrases when reading aloud. This is, more or less, the original concept of the modern comma. (Which gives some idea how ephemeral the comma can be. It was originally nothing but a mouthful of air.) The modern comma derived directly from a little diagonal slash printers used to indicate a pause – the virgula suspensiva. I don’t know why you need to know that, but now you do.

In these oh-so-sophisticated times, the comma isn’t really used to indicate breaths (but then, we don’t do a whole lot of reading out loud anymore either) but it is still used to separate clauses – those “cut off” bits I spoke of.

First: A comma is used to separate dependent clauses from independent clauses when the dependent clause comes first, such as: “After cutting down all the the turpentine trees, I threw myself into a butt of malmsey wine.”  Turn it around (“I threw myself into etc after cutting down all the whatsis”) and you no longer need a comma. Also, use a comma when two independent clauses are stitched together with one of the seven coordinating conjunctions – so, and, yet, but, or, nor, for.  Consider the difference:  “I couldn’t get out of bed if I wanted to, and the phone was ringing off the hook”  as opposed to “I slaughtered all the innocents because they were getting on my nerves.”  Because is a subordinating conjunction here, so it doesn’t need a comma. There are many others – since, unless, although, after, whereas, whether, while, just to name a few. They don’t need a comma unless the clause they introduce comes before the subject clause of the sentence: “Although they continue to get on my nerves, I will not slaughter all the innocents.”

Okay? Okay.

Now we turn to relative clauses, which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. Non-restrictive clauses take commas, restrictive clauses do not. Did you see what I did in the first sentence of this paragraph? The clause “which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive” is a nonrestrictive clause, so it needs a comma. If I had said:  “Now we turn to relative clauses which can be restrictive or nonrestrictive,” I would be restricting myself ONLY to relative clauses that can be either. Clear?

No, of course not. That’s a dumb example because the restriction is meaningless. Here’s a better one. “The king mandated the slaying of innocents who were mewling tediously.” This means the king ordered all the mewling innocents – and only the mewling innocents – be dispatched. The meaning is restricted. Presumably, placid innocents were allowed to live, this time anyway. If I’d said, “The king mandated the slaying of innocents, who were mewling tediously,” that suggests that all the little tykes are making an annoying noise and all needed dispatching. No restriction. Any peaceable tykes who were caught up in the fray were just out of luck. 

Plain as rain, no?

On to adverbs. Certain adverbs get commas every time, such as: therefore, however, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore.  Put a comma after it if it begins a sentence: “Nevertheless, it moves.”  If it occurs mid-sentence: “In this competition, however, the loser takes it all,” put commas on both sides.

(Note: I tend to put my commas inside my quotes, an Americanism. The British English practice of putting the comma outside the quotes  – or, if you prefer, the “inverted commas” – is perfectly fine. Even if it’s weird.)

Some adverbs aren’t so fussy, and context and mood can determine usage. “Tonight we dance” has a different feel from “Tonight, we dance.”  Just a bit of dramatic pause. But if that’s really what you’re going for, you might want to sell it a little harder, “Tonight – we dance”  or “But tonight, Esmeralda, we dance!”  It all depends on whether you’re writing a bleak nihilistic novel in a minimalist style, or a florid romance novel  about tango dancers and gypsies. 

But back to commas.

A common comma elision occurs with “too” when it is the ultimate word in a sentence. It’s perfectly valid to use a comma, but it isn’t really needed and looks a little fussy, and – here’s the key point – no one is going to be confused. On the other hand, if you say, “The tubas came in late after the alla breve section too” there is some ambiguity. Do you mean those damned tubas are always missing their cues? Or are you piling on because the pesky piccolos were tardy as well? Fortunately, context will usually make the distinction clear. If not, a comma before the “too” might be enough to suggest the former.

Or consider the following example: “Clang realized too late his airlock was open.” You could enclose “too late” in commas, but you don’t need to. However, if you want to add emphasis for ironic or dramatic or humorous purposes, commas might be the way to go: “Clang realized, too late, his airlock was open.” You could also use em dashes in the same manner: “Clang realized – too late – his airlock was open” emphasizing even more the irony or drama or humor of poor Clang’s plight. Increasing the distance between Clang’s moment of realization and what he actually realizes heightens the tension of the construction: “Clang realized – too late, as it turned out, because his dials were all in the red zone, and the canary alarm was chirping in a manner that, at long last, explained its nomenclature – his airlock was open.”  Here, of course, em dashes are needed to organize this absurd parade of clauses into some semblance of sense.

There are plenty of other uses for commas, like after introductory phrases and around appositives and to separate items on a list and between parts of place names. But when you really get down to the nitty gritty, commas have the same purpose as all punctuation: they make meaning clearer. When it comes to clarifying syntax, the humble comma does a lot of the heavy lifting. But unless the sentence is particularly long or highly complex or especially convoluted, you might be just fine omitting our little friend.  

Consider this nearly random sentence from The Great Gatsby:  

“In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.”

First off, the barb about the age of his female guests is nicely delivered. But if we wanted to call foul on the comma usage, we could. Technically, a comma should be used after “In the main hall.” It is an introductory phrase, after all. Does he need it? Not really. The meaning is clear. There’s no confusion. So no problem. But let’s look at where he does use a comma: “a brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins…” No comma is wanted here. The “and” might appear to call for it, but both clauses have the same subject: the bar – the bar was set up; the bar was stocked. What follows is not an independent clause. If the sentence had ended with the word gins, the comma would be glaringly wrong (and I’m sure Fitzgerald would’ve omitted it). BUT the clause that follows is long and complicated. This comma is more for pacing, I think. Fitz’s comma gives us a little breath before tackling the rest of the sentence. It is also an organizational tool. We know, without even having to think about it, that everything that follows is one long, breathless phrase. Could he have placed a comma after liquors?  Maybe. Again, there’s no technical need. The rest of the sentence is not an independent clause. The choice would be one of pacing and grouping, and clearly ol’ Scott wanted us to read it all in one gush. Possibly, he wanted us to assume that it was not only the cordials which were were forgotten but also the gins and liquors. And, possibly, I have gone way too deep into the weeds over this. At any rate, I’ll stop now.

Gertrude Stein said, A comma by helping you along and holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it”  – which is so smart-aleckishly convoluted, it’s hard to say for sure whether she was for them or against them (she was against them). But the point is made. If you can get away without it, and you really don’t want it cluttering up or slowing down your sentence, hey, try leaving that comma out. You have my permission, which is worth almost nothing. But make conscious choices. Every sentence is different. (Note: It’s easy to find humorous examples of how misused punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence, like: “Let’s go home and eat kids!” – but that kind of thing doesn’t really happen all that often.)

I’m going to leave it there. I certainly haven’t covered everything, and there are some briar patches out there (serial adjectives? Don’t get me started), so maybe next time.

Or maybe I’ll tackle hyphens.


14 thoughts on “Paws Here

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Great blog. Thanks, Atthys.
    I’d like to say I didn’t learn anything reading it, but. I did.
    I learned to read more closely. For instance, the Gatsby quote. Looking closer, I read that sentence as two thoughts, joined by a comma to evoke a feeling for a place in time. At least, that is the effect on me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. atthysgage says:

    I’ve had grammar gurus swear (or affirm) that the reasons for using or not using a comma are clear cut and obvious, and that all of this maybe-she-will-maybe-she-won’t business is just a lot of mealy-mouthing. But that’s why they’re grammar gurus rather than successful authors (well, one of possibly many reasons.) I’m a stickler for rules in that I think everyone should know them and only break them for some reason more pressing than “meh, whatever.” But I’m not a fetishist. There is usually more than one way to scan a cat. Show me it works, and I’ll doff my cap.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I am going to read very carefully, then give my novella ‘To Pay A Piper’ a final look-at. I do have trouble with commas. I put them where, in a read aloud, I would give my listener a quizzical look, or a pregnant pause.

    I take heart from a manuscript I recently handled at work. Almost every line on a page had a comma deleted by the editor. The author responded by countermanding nearly every deletion. I should have read carefully, to see who I agreed with. But I’m not there to read. I’m there to prepare work to be ftp’d to India. I suspect I would have sided with the author.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I see that not many people get excited about commas. But I do! And you know what else I obsess about? Paragraph breaks. Should these two paragraphs run together, or sit apart? I’m constantly hooking them up, saying no, that makes too long a paragraph, and unhitching them. Then I say, I have too many short disjointed thoughts. Flow has something to do with it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      I obsess a bit about paragraph breaks too. There’s a drama to it, and not a lot of rules, actually. Even the question of which elements are closely related and which indicate a new thought or direction is pretty subjective. I rarely violate the rule that a paragraph should always have at least two sentences, but even then, I might. Paragraph grouping is definitely an area where we have some license.

      Liked by 4 people

    • Perry Palin says:

      I like commas just fine. Sometimes I use them in dialogue to emphasize a dialect or an emotion. The editors don’t always see it my way. They want to change them all around.

      There are rules about paragraphs, I guess, but I don’t know them. The editors don’t give me much hassle about my paragraphs.

      I’ve turned my unpublished novel over to an editor for a developmental edit. He is still working on it. He said it’s a solid book. He gave me some good preliminary ideas about plot and suspense, but he didn’t complain about my commas or paragraphs.

      Liked by 4 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    Here’s an example of what throws me: It’s the start of chapter 24. Would you run these together or not?

    They’ve had their ups and downs, as in any relationship. The cat replies politely, but firmly. Kelley sugarcoats his criticism. Sly does not.

    “You’re done for, my friend. I foresee the following: Heinzie’s sedative had been the one useful component to your mischief. He’ll sell his chemical acumen. He’ll be hired here and there, racking up wins, until the populace demands an all-and-everything initiative. At that point he can name his terms. That’s his game. What’s yours? Cards on the table, J.D. Whatcha got up your sleeve? Don’t tell me it’s . . . you know. Don’t, pul-eeeeze.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • atthysgage says:

      In this case, the risk is small, but normally I’d probably make it one paragraph, if for no other reason than to let the reader know who is talking (Sly, right?), otherwise it’s a least a little ambiguous. That basic rule – keeping the attributed quote in the same paragraph as the attribution – is one I usually follow pretty closely.

      Liked by 4 people

    • The first paragraph seems to tell the reader the context and intention of the second paragraph. It brings to mind the secondary school instruction we received about writing persuasive essays — Introduction: tell them what you plan to tell them. Body: tell them. Conclusion: tell them what you told them.

      Why can’t the second paragraph show the context and intention itself? Isn’t the reader already aware of nature of Kelley and Sly’s relationship? Or is this the first time they’ve interacted? I understand I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t read Chapters 1-23, but I agree with Atthys that identifying the speaker would reduce confusion. As this little speech appears to follow an event that occurred at the end of Chapter 23, perhaps something as direct as: Sly turned to Kelley and said, “You’re done for, my friend…”

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent post, Atthys! Reminds me of the panda joke about punctuation: http://mentalfloss.com/article/14628/punctuating-panda

    I have two different editing programs that I use and they sometimes give different recommendations when it comes to using commas. I think, in much of my writing, I tend to use them to excess. My loved ones also complain that I speak too slowly. I might, or some might say, I like the reader, and the listener, to pause their thinking.

    As for paragraphs, I recall a lecture where the speaker referenced a study about paragraph breaks. A page of text with no paragraph breaks was given to a number of “experts” with instructions to break up the text into paragraphs. When the results were analysed, there was little agreement among the experts.

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Have you ever used a double slash? Lately, there is a series of novels that I read, and through each book someone left these penciled marks at the ends of various paragraphs. Nothing seemed amiss in the flow of the paragraphs, and no need for a double spacing either.

    Liked by 1 person

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