SPRING CLEANING YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Commas, that annoying curly punctuation mark
During last month’s before-meeting critique, a discussion arose on the proper use of the comma, a boring topic, indeed, and one, I confess, I know very little about.
Anyone notice all the commas? Anyone know if they’re right?
I consulted Copyediting, A Practical Guide by Karen Judd, the “bible” I was given when I worked for a small non-fiction publishing house in New Jersey. What follows is a summary of only some of the uses from the chapter on commas. (Yawn)
A comma is used in compound sentences usually before the conjunctions. A compound sentence is made up of two or more distinct sentences, each able to stand alone. However you need not use a comma if the clauses that make up the compound sentence are closely related or if the second relies on the first for its sense. (Translation – If a comma sounds better, use one).
Use a comma after an introductory adverbial clause. When it rains, I get depressed.
Use a comma after an introductory infinitive phrase. To get published, I must write.
Use a comma after a long introductory phrase. Nine years after joining New Jersey Romance Writers, I finally got published.
Use a comma after a short introductory phrase if confusion could result without it. In 2004, 265 writers belonged to NJRW.
Confused yet? Wait, it gets worse.
Use a comma after a parenthetical element that serves to break up continuity. I learned, among other things, that the use of the comma could be confusing.
Use a comma between coordinating adjectives if the word and logically could be read between them. NJRW hosts a popular, informative conference each fall. (popular and informative)
As opposed to not using a comma to separate an adjective from a word group. The speaker stood on a shaky black platform. (not shaky and black, and not that it would ever happen at one of our conferences anyway)
Use commas around nonrestrictive elements. A nonrestrictive element can be taken out of the sentence. My manuscript, which is a contemporary romance, is at Avalon.
Do not use commas in restrictive clauses, use that instead of which. The manuscript that is a historical is at Berkley. (Only that manuscript, not some other).
Use commas with appositives. An appositive is a word or group of words that renames the noun or pronoun it follows. Debra Mullens, President of NJRW, writes historical novels for Avon.
If all the above wasn’t enough to try to absorb, there were uses to consider when writing.. There were rules for comma use with parenthetical elements, quotations, transitional and special elements, antiethical elements, a series, adverbial clauses, and on and on and on. After spending a good amount of time to distill all of the remaining uses of the comma into an interesting yet informative paragraph, eventually, I gave up.
So while I’m sure you all now have usage overload and the use and misuse of commas short-circuiting your brain, the best advice I can pass along is that many times the use of a comma is most often judgment call. A comma indicates a pause. If you would pause in speaking, put a comma in your writing.