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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Comma Queen

I was once known as the Grammar Queen. I shared that honor with my friend Leslie. We knew the rules, which is important if you want to break them. The comma thing is particularly vexing. Rules change at the drop of a hat. Ditto for dashes.

But writing fiction, and especially creating dialog, requires that you hear where commas are needed and leave them out where they aren't. No matter what Mr. Strunk and Mr. White might think, sometimes, in fiction, you have to break the punctuation rules.

That's why I love this blog post from Cheryl Klein about using commas. It's taken from a book she's about to publish, and I'll be first to check that one out! As Ms. Klein, super editor at Scholastic says:
The ENEMY to sentence rhythm: the wrong punctuation..

Recently I received a critique from a highly regarded agent (not mine!) commenting that I should check for "typos" in my manuscript. Me? The Grammar Queen? I was insulted. But I knew exactly what he referred to-- those commas that separate compound sentences. I'd left them out intentionally. It just didn't sound right.

Joan talked and Julie listened. Glory raced upstairs and Frankie followed her.

Now I know those could use a comma, but it destroys the rhythm of the sentence. At least the way I hear it in my own head's voices! And Cheryl Klein gives even more excellent examples.
It's a short blog post. Click on over there and read. And whether you like serial commas or not, at least we writers need to know what they're intended for in the first place.

You do remember serial commas, don't you?


Anne said...

Thanks for sharing this. AP style (most newspapers) omit the serial comma. Drives me nuts -- and the example Brockenbrough used is exactly why it is wrong to omit the serial comma. The other reason is that omitting the serial comma gives unequal weight to the list. For example, in the sentence "I have a book, a hat, a pen and a pipe" book gets 1/3 the weight, hat gets 1/3 the weight, but pen and pipe share the remaining 1/3 of the weight. Put the serial comma back in and they each share 1/4 the weight -- as they should.

Try telling this to a news journalist, however.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Funny thing. I agree about punctuation reflecting the personality of the writer. I know how I want a sentence to sound and I try to be faithful to the appropriate punctuation when writing but I tend to give the copyeditor free rein with comma decisions. At that point, I am so overwhelmed with details that I no longer care about commas.

There are times when a dash is all that will work for me. But I find that the copyeditor is not as fond of them as I am.

Sue LaNeve said...

To comma or not to comma, the question I face at the end of every clause, phrase, or (yes Anne!) listed item. I argue with myself. Me: It's a comma splice. Fix it. Myself: Maybe so. But I want to affect the pacing and emotion--it's intentional--so live with it. Me: But an editor will believe you failed 9th grade English! Myself: Gotta go with my gut and believe there are editors who agree.

And your other topic: To m-dash, comma, or semi-colon? There usage used to be distinct. Now, it seems to be personal taste.

Thanks for venturing into this foggy marsh, Augusta!