Friday, March 8, 2013

Friday Fricassee

This says it all.

It's funny; an old college colleague shared this photo on my Facebook wall this morning.  It's not even someone I knew well.  But I guess I'm pretty obvious on Facebook about what's important to me.

(I can imagine all the eye-rolling that goes on among my non-writing, non-language-oriented friends.)

At any rate, I just want to make one observation for the benefit of all:  The number one grammatical problem I'm seeing in my critique work is the misuse of the comma.  (Sometimes blatant.)

Of course, I edit every error I you can imagine how fixing All The Commas can slow down my critique pace.

(Yes, I fix them all.  It's a good first step for a writer to learn what's right.)

So, here's the thing:  Why are commas such a problem?  What is it about the lowly comma that produces such angst and chaos in a manuscript?

I'd fully expected to be inundated with a lot more lay/lie errors, for example.  And certainly errors with the subjunctive voice.  But comma errors have surpassed all.

Talk to me about commas!  And about everything else that trips you up while you're crafting words.  If we can weed out the things that slow us down, our stories will be a lot shinier!


  1. That shirt is hilarious. I need it!

    I'm a big, big, big fan of the properly-placed comma. I'm trying to instill this value in my 8-year-old daughter. She's not having it. I'm mortified.

  2. I've seen a lot of great, often hilarious examples of proper comma usage. I've also noticed an uptick in the number of wayward commas I see. I'm known by my CP's as the BONUS COMMA lady, who points out misplaced, unnecessary commas. Lately, I've seen the opposite problem: A lack of commas where they are needed.

    I'm considering buying a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves for all my CP's. It explains proper usage in an entertaining, easy to understand manner. It's one of my favorite grammar manuals!

  3. Love the shirt . . .

    Between misuse of the comma and its (please, no punctuation!) slightly elevated twin, it's (yes, yes, here's where the apostrophe goes)becoming harder to read almost anything without blowing a gasket.

  4. Great shirt.

    I love commas and end up adding a lot in manuscripts I critique. Usually people leave them off with 2 independent clauses and a coordinating conjunction.

    As usual, there's always an exception. Like if you have 2 short, balanced clauses. But I've never seen that defined. And some grammar sites show that to be 2-3 word clauses. Others up to 6-8 words.

    But you can never go wrong having the comma, so I usually add it.

  5. I was at the mall a while back and some dude had on a shirt with this: SHUT UP AND GET ME MY COFFEE WOMAN. I wasn't sure which offended me more - the shirt or the lack of a comma.

    Anyway, I'm guilty of comma overuse. Trying hard to break the habit.

  6. It's true, I find commas challenging. I think grammatically it's relatively easy to know where to put one, but stylistically it's a different story. Sometimes you just want your character to run on and on for a sentence or two. Sometimes you want that breathlessness. I have had long exchanges with both teachers and CPs about how many situations there are where a comma may or may not be applied.

    Other than that, I wouldn't mind meeting a coffee woman myself ;-) Especially this early in the day, and during a snow storm.

  7. Comma abuse is one of my grammar peeves. I think when people aren't sure, they insert a comma where they think a natural break (or breath) would go if you were speaking the sentence.

    I always ask myself, "is that comma necessary for the sentence to make sense?"

    Also, when did the Oxford comma become optional?

  8. As a longtime business-world writer now venturing into the world of fiction, I believe in the separation of worlds. Formal writing has very strict rules about commas, with the only open issue the question of the serial comma. For example:
    - Which takes a comma, that never. (The house that I love is empty vs. The house, which I love, is empty.)
    - Subordinate clauses that masquerade as "run-on sentences" but lack a true separate subject never take a comma. (He went to the store [no comma] and later sued the Salvation Army for bell-ringing induced deafness.)

    Fiction allows more freedom with rhythm, and the comma can work as a caesura. "He went to the store, and later sued the bell-ringer" has a different rhythm than the comma-less version, suggesting somehow that the second action carries a bit more weight. Perhaps there is a higher level of surprise to the second version. The difference is slight, perhaps ineffable, but it's there.

    That said the random, misuse of commas is, I must say frustrating. (It was amazingly hard to type that sentence, which contains three - count 'em, three - comma errors.)

    I love creative comma-ing, but abhor, detest, and serial-comma despise unthinking comma errors.

  9. There was a time when teachers actually taught that commas indicate a pause in a sentence; I think that this has been misinterpreted and reversed into the belief that you simply add a comma whenever you want a pause.

    As to the question of the Oxford Comma, I work in broadcasting, and the Associated Press Style Guide advises against using it. I DO use one when it is necessary in terms of avoiding confusion that would come without its appearance. However, as a general rule, I do not use it in every instance. Blame my broadcast copyrighting background, but I find that sentences read easier WITHOUT it.

  10. Love the shirt! Thanks for the morning laugh. I can usually handle commas, but continue to struggle with lay/lie (and I've heard some agents say they won't read past such an "egregious error"). Good thing I connected with an English teacher critique partner via this site... Thank you, Authoress, for that networking opportunity!

  11. That is one of my kids favorite jokes. They hover around the kitchen while I cook dinner so they can yell, let's eat Dad! Then they laugh and laugh.



    My eternal dilemma is this: fixing commas for critique partners doesn't seem to help them. They turn around and make the same mistakes with the next piece of writing--and this is the repeated, blatant misuse--not the occasional mistake. I've finally given up on correcting all errors to save myself the headache and time suck.

    Because you are editing for hire, though, I guess that's a different story, because you're sort of obligated (i.e. PAID) to fix mistakes.

    But for critique partners, what are our obligations? Are we supposed to fix all? Maybe it's better to just say, "You might want to work on applying this certain punctuation rule."


    Mari -- I LOVE that. Too bad you didn't have a Sharpie on could've taken care of it right there. :)

    Beth -- I am blessed to have CPs who are not comma-challenged AT ALL. And yes, I fix them for my clients because they are clients. I would be remiss not to fix them.

    Until your CPs LEARN the rules, they will keep making the mistakes. I'd stop fixing them, too.

    Laura -- I recommend EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES to my clients and to anyone else who listen. It's the perfect little manual!

  14. I'm probably one of the offenders when it comes to mis-using commas, but I blame my multi-cultural education. In English English (as in from England) far fewer commas are used than in American English. Having done part of my education in England, New Zealand and Australia, and part in America, I've been taught contradictory things about using commas.

    So now I just tend to sprinkle them liberally, wherever I feel they're needed.

  15. I'm having one of those days, and the t-shirt made me wet my pants. I'm comma-impaired, so I welcome all the sage advice herein. Happy Friday, y'all.

  16. I definitely feel that omitting commas is like leaving the house without pants, but I'm with Beth Hull -- I honesty wonder if people care, or even if they get it. I'm not saying this be a grammar snark. When people haven't internalized comma usage to the OMG-no-underpants level, I think they truly feel that "fixing" comma usage is "merely" polishing or fine tuning and is what editors do.

    If someone's paying me to edit their work, I'll fix everything. But with CPs I definitely don't read at such a fine level unless someone asks me to. It just makes more sense to offer a general remark about the need to (eventually) correct confusing punctuation. Also, reading aloud can help.

    And I agree with Kate Larkindale on the whole different varieties of English thing. Just try telling a non-US American (Canadians, where do you stand?) about how to use that versus which. My mother-tongue English is also of the Commonwealth variety, and when I moved to the US it was eye-opening to have to rethink some of my assumptions about correct English.

  17. Also, related and almost as funny as that t-shirt:

    Eons ago, when I taught required composition classes to reluctant college students, I found this to be the best guide to grammar flubs:

  18. There's a very good reason commas get misused so much: they're versatile! There are so many ways to use them, each with its own rules. The question mark, the period, and various other punctuation marks do only one thing or just a few. But commas can separate items in a list, introduce dialogue, separate clauses, make long numbers easier to read, and so forth.

    Most of us who are native English speakers just sort of absorbed this stuff when we were learning to speak, write, and read, so it's easy not to know all the rules and particulars. I learned most of the grammatical terms I know when I was a teaching assistant in grad school (and I meta-learned that the best way to learn grammar is to teach it to someone else).

  19. My friend posted something similar on facebook. It went like this:

    Stop clubbing seals

    Stop clubbing, seals

    Then there was picture of some seals at a club. Always funny. I admit I am guilty when it comes to comma misuse. I think I second guess myself so much that I place a comma in a panic and I end up having too many breaks in my writing.

    I have Eat, Shoots, and Leaves to help me out with my punctuation and I'm getting better. Even so, I'm still a work-in-progress when it comes to mastering commas.

  20. I'm an admitted comma nazi! That is my number one pet peeve when judging contest entries. I'll mark the first dozen or so, then they're on their own.

    My other peeve is subjunctive verb use, or lack thereof. I wish I was green? No! I wish I WERE green.

    Also, I'm highly irritated by simultaniety. There are just some things you can't do at the same time. Example: "Turning slowly, she hopped onto the roof of the car." If both these things are done at the same time, she would be quite the contortionist.

    I, too, am bothered by those who don't know the difference between which and that. You use which in a nonrestrictive clause, meaning that if you leave out "which" it doesn't change the meaning of the sentence. Whereas if you were to leave out "that," the meaning of the sentence WOULD change because "that" is restrictive. Example: Leaves that are green won't fall from the tree. (green restricts the kind of leaves I'm talking about.) Leaves, which are green, won't fall from the tree. (In this case the leaves aren't restricted to being green so if you leave that part off, the meaning of the sentence does not change.)

  21. I love that T-shirt!
    I have no trouble with commas (though I'm more old school than CSM). But what bugs me is the British and Australian rules that have done away with most commas. Some of their books are hard to read because the sentences are open to interpretation and lack rhythm.
    Not using correct (formal, old-school) punctuation just strikes me as sloppy.

  22. Is it wrong that, for me, I have no strict adherence to comma rules when the final sentence is completely understandable? The more I try to learn the rules of comma usage the more I feel they were made by hateful, sadistic, perfectionist bent on destroying my creativity. At one point, I found myself spending more time worrying about pushing commas around than letting my story flow freely from fingers to keyboard. That's just completely counterproductive and frustrating as hell. Don't get me wrong, egregious misplacement, or lack thereof, is a problem. I'm merely referring to the minor infractions with scant, if any, impact on the intent of the sentence. Writing is a transference of expression, and as long as my reader comprehends my description, dialog and/or intention, I feel I've succeed and am more than satisfied. (I understand and accept that the above statement has been condemned for any improper punctuation)

  23. My name is Kelly and I have a dysfunctional relationship with the comma. Please point me to the nearest twelve step program.

  24. No matter how much research and studying I've done, I still cannot get all the comma rules down. I can completely relate to zolosolo. I continue to struggle with them. I think one thing is there so many rules. Or it feels like it because it doesn't come naturally to me--I really have to think about them. It's very frustrating, also, because they make feel stupid. (I have two post high school degrees--I feel like I am a somewhat intelligent person.) Or, I worry that they make me come across as stupid. Like with contest judges...I really do try and have done everything I can think of to understand their usage--I swear I'm trying and not slacking off or thinking they don't matter. They just don't click with me.

  25. As an old-timer, I recall taking my first freshman English class at college and if you used a comma splice, you automatically failed the course. I ran back to my dorm room and poured over grammar books, looking up "splice." Petrified I'd make a fatal comma splice on my essays, I found myself using short, simple sentences and zero adjectives (LOL).

    There was an interesting headline yseterday about how many NYC high school students are functionally illiterate. This parallels a fascinating book, "The Shallows," a Pulitzer-prize nominee about how the Internet and gadgetry addiction(s) are making us more stupid. Using Google. Texting. Etc.

    I took an online course and read a question from a young college student, "Do I really need to read in order to write?"


    For me, it's all tied together, the comma problem, the Internet addiction, etc. There's another study cited in Scientific American how doing things the "old fashioned way," (e.g., using a map instead of a GPS, using a sheet of paper and doing long division instead of a calculator, reading a standard book) -- how this helps with our "fluid intelligence." But then the attacks come, and quite vehemently, on how you are a stupid dinosaur and can't see how cool and advanced technology is. Oy! (Shaking head)

    Oh, and my goodness, hear a teacher talk who has any seniority, about how kids can't write, spell, punctuate or have the attention span for a longer novel. (They now assign short novels in high school literatrure classes, because kids can tolerate those better)

  26. I made As in English throughout my years of formal education, and I feel confident in my ability to use commas properly. However, I have had critique partners insist that neither of the commas I have used thus far belong in my ms. I disagree. They, in turn, disagree when I add commas to their work. And so we have agreed to disagree on the issue of commas. Hey, I use commas to separate interjections, to make sense of a series, to set off appositives, to mark dependent clauses, and to indicate, in dialogue, a pause, much as a poet would use a line break. Ultimately, I am willing to change my comma habits only for a person in an editor's chair. Whether I am paying or being paid, money talks. And now--back to the ms. (Anyone want to talk about colons, em dashes or parentheses?)

  27. Commas used to be the bane of my existence. I couldn't get when to use them, when to use semi-colons. It drove me crazy.

    Then I started teaching Freshman English as a TA and I did a lesson on commas and CLICK I got it! Now comma errors drive me crazy and I do everything I can to make sure the freshmen in my class leave knowing the most commonly misunderstood rules.

  28. I think the problem with commas is the fact that every teacher, instructor, and professor teaches the proper use of each use differently. All of them. I promise I'm not exaggerating.

    Also, I agree with a previous commenter on the fact that the use of technology and texting is killing grammar overall. Rules are made to be broken (okayokay sometimes), and I'm pretty much a rebel. So I also agree with zolosolo: I have no strict adherence to comma rules when the final sentence is completely understandable.

  29. I've noticed with my writing group that we all pause frequently while writing a single sentence. Those short pauses we take while thinking can make it seem like a natural pause. Thus, in goes the comma.

  30. There are rules with comma use?
    Just Jill

  31. I would love a recommendation for a simple reference for comma usage. I opened with that request because I HATE THE COMMA! It is evil. I am a smart person. I have a doctorate, so I know I can learn things. I cannot seem to learn when to use a comma. Or I will have a rule of when to use a comma, but then I will have a complex sentence. Such as this one. Where I break it up into separate sentences, because I can't figure out which rule to follow. And if I follow them all.... my sentence would be comma word comma word comma word. It's not that I'm lazy. It's not that I assume someone else will fix it. It's not that I haven't tried to do the research. The only other thing that has ever made me feel as stupid as I feel about commas is Calculus. Which, by the way, is not math. Math has numbers. Not imaginary numbers. Now I need to find a blog to rant about how stupid that non-math course makes me feel. LOL! Seriously though, any helpful, simple comma reference would help.

  32. Lara: EATS, SHOOTS, and LEAVES by Lynn Truss.

    Beyond that, though, I really think the reason that intelligent people get tripped up by commas is that they try to isolate the comma usage, when actually you need a thorough understanding of sentence structure first. Once you understand the mechanics of the sentence, then it's easier to understand WHY a comma is needed (or not needed). There really are hard-and-fast rules for when to use a comma, with very few exceptions. Trying to learn "only the comma rules" would be like learning only the steering wheel when learning to drive. :)

  33. Comma errors are probably so common in part because commas must do so many jobs. Software developers call this "overloading," and it leads to errors there too.

    I highly recommend the eBook "Zen Comma" which clearly describes 17 "overloads" along with whole chapters on when not to use a comma. That's not as daunting as it sounds (I read Zen Comma while walking back from lunch one day). But it's not trivial either, and like the sentence-beginning conjunction I just used, many rules are widely broken by convention.

    It all comes down to commitment. Many can write. Few can write well. Fewer still are willing to move themselves from the one group into the other. Doing so requires practice and a thick skin.

  34. The biggest problem I have is that I'm a bilingual author. German has many more comma rules than English, and there are some I keep getting mixed up. So my English text sometimes suffer from an overdose of commas. Three cheers for my editor who usually catches all my little mistakes.

  35. Fictionrider12621 nderYInMarch 10, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    there are some comma mistakes - like eating grandma - which are really important. A lot of the other things are excusable as long as it reads well. English is so flexible than a grammar nazi would place ruled where they are correct but not mecessary....sommas included. Comprehension and flow is the key not what is or is not technically correct because English has undergone so many changes that it is sill to try to be a slave to them. EG - for many years, grammar nazis were upset that the opening of star trek spil an infinitive ans said to boldly go....instead of to go boldly....well....who cares? the first sounds right (incorrect) and the second (technically correct) sounds horrible to the ear. So, I urge everyone to worry about your story and unless your errors are egregious, live with them and go on to more imporant things.