Let’s Talk Commas
When it comes to comma usage, how many of us reach back into our memories to ninth-grade English class? What was it that your teacher told you about when to use a comma and when not to use a comma? You may read these rules aloud in a sing-song tone—Miss Foster would be proud.
- Two independent clauses joined by a conjunction need a comma before the conjunction.
- Introductory dependent clauses are set off by commas.
- A dependent clause that presents added information not needed to keep the meaning of the sentence intact is set off by commas. A dependent clause that comes in the middle or the end of a sentence and is necessary to the meaning is not set off by commas.
- An appositive is a group of words that follow a noun and identifies it or gives more info. Appositives are set off by commas. If the appositive is so closely related to the noun that it modifies the meaning of the word, then you don’t need commas.
- Yada, yada, yada . . .
Well, those rules and a couple of others still apply, and writers who correctly use commas will have the eternal gratitude of their copy editors. But rather than suggest you memorize a set of rules, I’m going to give you some common-sense examples that might make the rules a little easier to apply.
Please know that most publishing houses have style guides where they address comma usage, and if you’re writing for a specific house, you’ll need to follow their rules, even if they disagree with the ones I’m sharing here. A great example of this is the dreaded Oxford, or serial, comma. In my world, Oxford commas are always, always correct, but some houses eschew them as extraneous punctuation. Go figure. Here, editor Nan is telling you to use a serial comma when you have a list of three or more items or actions; i.e., He turned, smiled, and kissed her. Or He resisted the urge to salute her red, white, and blue dress.
Use commas when you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. So, She made the bed, and he took a shower. Two complete thoughts, two subjects, two verbs. Easy, right? Yeah, but sometimes house style is to leave out that comma if the sentences are this simple because again, the old, extraneous punctuation thing. So, a slightly more complex example might be They lingered over dinner last night, and she woke up very tired the next morning. All in all, use the comma between two independent clauses—it’s just good policy.
Use a comma after an introductory clause or a long prepositional phrase: Although Mike was exhausted, he kept running. Or While Sarah was on vacation, she broke her ankle. Or In the heat of the moment, he let the secret slip. Just do it . . . for me, okay?
Dependent versus independent clauses? This one’s a little tougher, but here’s the skinny. Dependent clauses can’t stand alone, while independent clauses can. That’s it. Example, Because the pool was deep, I put water wings on my grandson. Dependent clause = Because the pool was deep—can’t stand alone. Independent clause = I put water wings on my grandson—subject + verb+ object means a complete sentence. This one has all the right elements to stand alone. There you go.
And then there’s the whole restrictive (no comma) versus nonrestrictive (use the comma) appositive thing—don’t let that scare you, here’s an example of each: Nonrestrictive: My husband, Fred, is losing weight. I only have one husband (polygamy notwithstanding), so Fred gets commas around his name because it’s not really necessary information. Restrictive: My sister Kate is going to Bermuda. I have more than one sister, so Kate is essential information if you’re going to know which sister is headed to Bermuda, thus no commas.
Remember to use commas with geographical locations in narrative: She moved to Beckley, West Virginia, for her new job. And use a comma to separate the month and year in a date: He was born on September 26, 1977.
Use a comma in dialogue before a “said” type of dialogue tag: “I’m feeling pretty chipper today,” Tony said with a broad wink. Do not use a comma in dialogue if you’re using action as your dialogue tag: “I’m feeling pretty chipper today.” Tony gave her a broad wink. FYI, husked, snorted, giggled, laughed, frowned, etc. are not “said” types of dialogue tags, but replied, answered, asked, called, whispered, murmured, etc. are. If you can actually do it with a word, it qualifies.
And that, my dear writers, is our easy-peasy comma lesson for today. Use these rules and examples, and commas should longer intimidate. A quick rule of thumb? Read the sentence aloud—if you feel a natural pause in the reading, that might be a good place for a comma.
Bio: Nan Reinhardt has been a copyeditor and proofreader for over 25 years, and currently works on romantic fiction titles for a variety of clients, including Avon Books, St. Martin’s Press, Kensington Books, Tule Publishing, and Entangled Publishing, as well as for many indie authors.
Nan is also writer of romantic fiction for women in their prime. Yeah, women still fall in love and have sex, even after 45! Imagine! She is a wife, a mom, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother. She’s been an antiques dealer, a bank teller, a stay-at-home mom, a secretary, and for the last 20 years, she’s earned her living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader.
But writing is Nan’s first and most enduring passion. She can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t writing—she wrote her first romance novel at the age of ten, a love story between the most sophisticated person she knew at the time, her older sister (who was in high school and had a driver’s license!), and a member of Herman’s Hermits. If you remember who they are, you are Nan’s audience! She’s still writing romance, but now from the viewpoint of a wiser, slightly rumpled, menopausal woman who believes that love never ages, women only grow more interesting, and everybody needs a little sexy romance.
Visit Nan’s website at www.nanreinhardt.com, where you’ll find links to all her books as well as blogs about writing, being a Baby Boomer, and aging gracefully…mostly. Nan also blogs every Tuesday at Word Wranglers, sharing the spotlight with four other romance authors.
Talk to Nan at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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