I’m doing this random blog post out of frustration from reading too many badly edited books lately. It’s at the point where poor editing and writing takes away from what sometimes is a great storyline because it’s so distracting. Having to re-read a sentence a couple of times to get its meaning sucks and makes me lose my flow.
Let me start by saying – commas are free. They don’t cost money. Please don’t write like you’re being charged for them because that’s what it seems like sometimes. “Well I just am not good with the commas.” How many times have I heard that? A lot. Nobody I know is incapable of learning, especially if you want to be a writer and have people enjoy your books.
I will say that I know that the majority readers don’t give a crap about commas, typos, or mistakes. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have your book edited, or care about editing. I’ve seen books make the NYT Bestseller list with these errors. Seriously? Maybe I’m getting cranky in my (approaching) old age, but I cannot stay quiet any longer.
Here are a few bullet points about commas. If you need to print this out and use it as a check-sheet while doing your final edit, then by all means, knock yourself out. In fact, I would encourage you to do so.
- Commas in Direct Address.
Nothing peeves me off faster than to leave this out. This comma is used for a reason. In fact, leaving it out can change the entire meaning of the sentence. I’ll use an oldie but goodie as an example:
“Let’s eat grandma.” Do you really want to eat your grandmother? Are you a zombie, or are you just that hungry? Or are you simply telling granny it’s time for dinner?
“Let’s eat, grandma.”
This applies for everyone and in all instances. There isn’t any time you can leave this out. Ever. Even when using nicknames, curse words, or titles. Here are a few more examples:
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
“I hate you, bitch!”
“This is your last warning, Amanda.”
“You’re so beautiful, sweetheart.”
“Don’t antagonize me, Riley, you jerk!” (See what I did there? Two directives – two commas).
It’s just as important not to leave the comma out after the name, too.
Here’s another example where leaving it out changes the meaning:
“Angie don’t make me mad.” Here, we are speaking to Angie. “Angie, don’t make me mad.”
versus speaking about Angie:
“Angie don’t make me mad. You do!”
Yes we’re dealing with “slang” here by using don’t improperly, but it happens in dialogue. You leave out that comma and you change the meaning.
These commas are to be used every time. Before and after:
“You make me smile, James, every time I think about you.”
As a side note that isn’t related to commas but I just need to get out – please do not use a character’s name in every sentence of dialogue. It’s not natural for two people to be alone in a room and to continually use each other’s name or nickname in a normal dialogue. As long as you use a separate line for each character, the reader can figure out who’s speaking. The opposite can be said if you have a large room of characters. It is beneficial for the characters to use the name of the person they are speaking to as to not confuse the reader. I read a book recently where there were about 6 people in the scene and I had no idea who was speaking, or to whom they were speaking. The author didn’t even bother half the time to write, “Jim said” or “Mary replied.” It was a very, very confusing scene. (This is why we have editors and proofreaders!)
CLEAR? If you have questions, just ask. Ask me, ask an English major, but make sure you ask someone who’s familiar with written dialogue. Hell, Google if you need to.
- Series Comma.
This is always a subject of debate, and I always enjoy the debate. I am a firm believer in the series comma, or the “Oxford Comma” as it’s sometimes referred to. A nickname I find amusing, considering the English are the ones who leave it out. They are taught as children not to put a comma before the word “and” in a sequence.
Here’s a short, ad-libbed little story I heard once that made a good case for the series comma.
Three adult children were at the reading of their father’s final will and testament. The will read: “To my children, Joe, Mary and Steve, I leave my entire estate, to be split equally.” What do you think Joe did? He thought he deserved half, while Mary and Steve had to split the other half, since they had been seemingly lumped into one half by the absence of a comma after Mary’s name. Kind of a ridiculous little scenario, but think about it. If you are listing a sequence or series of words, each one needs a comma after it, otherwise you are essentially lumping two things together by not doing this.
Here’s an example where you can lump things together and still use the series comma properly:
“Shawn was devastated at the sight of his burned down house. All his precious possessions – his bike, basketball, baseball glove and ball, Legos, even his childhood teddy bear – all gone.”
The baseball glove and ball kind of go together, don’t they?
This is a funny quote that had me cracking up for days, and went further than anything I’ve ever read in proving my point regarding the series comma:
Come on, that was funny! We all know Mandela wasn’t an 800 year old demigod who collected dildos.
So to recap: Put a comma before the word “and” (or “or”, or “but”) when listing a sequence or series. K?
- The Action Comma.
Okay yes, I kind of made up the term. But this comma is left out so much, I have to physically take a deep breath in order to continue reading, in place of the missing comma.
When a character is speaking, and you close the quotes with an phrase like “he said” or “she replied”, and the character is then going to do something else after they say, reply, or question, YOU NEED A COMMA! Your sentence isn’t done, but the action is. Of course, here are some examples:
“I’m so tired,” I said, plopping myself into the chair.
“Please don’t leave me!” I cried, raising my hand to grip his arm before he walked out the door.
“You’re crying?” I asked him softly, wishing the pity in my eyes didn’t show as much as I knew it did.
Do you see the two separate actions there? Leaving out that comma reads like one long breath that I just want to exhale, no break for the reader to grasp two separate actions. Using a gerund (word ending in –ing) does sometimes imply that the character is doing two things at once – but this does not mean the comma is to be left out.
- Commas in Description.
When you’re madly describing something – someone’s clothes, hair, the scenery – a lot of times you’re going to use more than one adjective to do so. Do you put commas there, or just list the words before the noun?
“She brushed her soft long brown hair…”
“The dirty tattered torn jeans on his legs…”
“The sun’s bright annoying yellow rays…”
What do you think? As I understand it, if it would sound okay to use the word “and” or “but” there, you put a comma. We wouldn’t normally speak this way, but it’s good to use as a general rule.
“Long, brown, soft hair.” Do NOT put a comma after the last adjective before the noun (in this case, “soft”) because you’re done listing the description.
“The dirty, tattered, torn jeans on his legs…”
I see these commas left out a lot, and out of all my pet peeves, this one isn’t one that really annoys me as much as the others, but it’s still important to know when to use them. If you want my unsolicited advice, just don’t use more than one adjective strung together. You can do things like:
“She brushed her long hair over her shoulder, its brown locks shiny and soft…”
“His blue jeans were dirty and tattered, worn all the way down to the threads…”
“The sun annoyed me, its bright rays casting a yellow hue around…”
I’m sure there are those who disagree with me here, being too wordy and all of that, but you’re still describing the items without having to do a list and worry about commas. I think it reads freer and flows better, and is more descriptive.
When describing someone in your story, like introducing them, you need a comma there, too:
“I’m meeting my sister, Anne for dinner.”
“Oh, that’s not me. That’s my brother, Tom.”
That can sometimes be confused with direct address (above), but in the right context – written properly – it won’t confuse the reader.
I think I’ve covered the majority of comma errors. If you train yourself to use these and not rely on the editor, your work will look much more polished and your readers will have a happier reading experience, even if they don’t know why they’re enjoying the book so much. And your editor will not be so annoyed with you on top of that. Score! After all, nobody’s perfect. Some books go through rounds of edits by multiple people and errors are still there; after all, we’re all human and miss things. So why not stop the errors before they go to the proofreader or editor? A good, clean manuscript isn’t just the job of the editor – because at the end of the day, it’s your name on that book.