Tuesday, October 02, 2012

comma chameleon

I really, really apologize for the post title. I grew up in the 80s, which explains why—as I was brainstorming titles—this popped into my head. And like the song, I just couldn’t shoo it away. So while it may not be the most descriptive or creative title, I believe it was meant to be—so here it stays. 

Now, on to the useful stuff!

I’ve edited a particular newsletter for several years. As I pull the entire thing together each month, I am reminded that one of the regular submitters is great in just about every respect. He turns in his pieces in on time. His writing is to the point and interesting, and he’ll insert bits of humor here and there. And he’s well informed on the subject matter.

Sounds great, right? Sure it is—almost. But there’s one thing I don’t love about going over his pieces each month: the random assortment of commas sprinkled throughout each manuscript. This fellow clearly has an affinity for commas, because they are everywhere in his writing. 

You’ve probably noticed that, when commas are inserted frequently, they can, in fact, make reading a sentence difficult. And when they are also, inserted improperly, it results in, really difficult reading.

See what I mean?

That’s not the only comma issue I’ve encountered when doing editorial-type jobs. Another common mishap is when these little guys are completely left out of sentences, which can result in misconstrued meanings. Here’s one of my favorite examples:

Let’s eat Grandma! (Yum?)

Let’s eat, Grandma! (Much better.)

Note how the meaning of this sentence is completely changed by the appearance (and lack thereof) of a comma!

The rules of comma use can be tricky, and of course there are many of these rules—too many to be addressed in a single blog post. So today let’s stick with two short n’ sweet additional tips for using commas.

Separate main clauses with coordinating conjunctions.
A little rusty on English terms? That’s ok. Just remember (1) a clause can stand alone (as its own sentence) and (2) coordinating conjunctions (e.g., if, and, but, or) connect words, phrases, and clauses. Check it out:

I wanted to turn on the light, but my roommate said it would make her migraine worse.

You could make two separate sentences here: I wanted to turn on the light and My roommate said it would make her migraine worse. To bring these clauses together in one sentence, you need a coordinating conjunction (but)—and you also need to add the comma before it appears.

Decide when to use serial commas
A serial comma (also called the Oxford comma) precedes the conjunction before the last item in a list of three or more items:

I need to buy milk, bread, and eggs

Truthfully, it really doesn’t matter whether you use a serial comma or not, as long as its use is consistent. Serial commas should be used, however, to help avoid confusion in some sentences:

I want to make these cookies for the bake sale: snicker doodle, chocolate chip, oatmeal, and macadamia.

Without a serial comma the sentence would read:

I want to make these cookies for the bake sale: snicker doodle, chocolate chip, oatmeal and macadamia.

Is the person making four different types cookies or three?

 I think we’ve talked enough about commas for one day. And by the way, thank you, Boy George. 


Minette said...

Thanks for explaining this simply in a way that makes sense. Been way too many years since college grammar classes and I know I have forgotten more than I ever learned.

Joanne Kaminski said...

I love it, comma, comma, comma chameleon. I am on the other side of the spectrum and work with people who entirely skip reading the commas and they read right over them. This then causes confusions about what they are reading. I am actually inspired by your title and would love to reference this blog next week. Would that be ok?

StephCalahan said...

Hi Cassie - Thanks for the reminders on how to properly use commas. You had me singing and relearning at the same time. :-)

Vikki Baptiste said...

HA! I was going to say what Joan already said (about the comma, comma, comma, ...... )

I, for one, am leaning toward the overuse side. I sometimes look at a sentence and think "Oh dear, I need to swap out some of those commas for hyphens" and I'm not sure thats a good thing either!

Moreover, I'm a fan of short sentences, negating the need for commas altogether. Though I do love the Oxford comma and use it all the time!

Tia Dye said...

I am pretty sure I have that much down. I am looking forward to the next set of rules for commas, because I am sure this much is about all I know.

jazzmom said...

Oh, I see all kinds of new lyric-puns in the making!

Minette, I know what you mean. There are so many rules to remember! I'm a writer, but if I was asked to diagram a sentence I'm sure I would have to review some concepts.

Joanne, that would be great, thanks!

Steph, I hope you like that song because it may remain in your head for a while! :)

Vikki, I am a hyphen junkie! And, like you, I'm a fan of the Oxford and use it a lot as well.

Tia, I'll have to come up with a part II. If anyone has a new song title to reference I'm all ears! :)

Thx for reading/commenting, all!