1. Tea@3
    Offline

    Tea@3 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 18, 2015
    Messages:
    322
    Likes Received:
    200
    Location:
    USA

    Commas (style vs 'correct use')

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Tea@3, Jan 24, 2016.

    For the record I try to avoid redundant threads because I think they clog up the boards for everybody. So I did a search and it seems all the threads about commas were started by people with specific lines they are seeking help on. I want to ask about the use of commas in general...

    A poster in one of the many threads I just read said something like this regarding commas:

    "Yes that's technically correct usage but I'd never do it that way in fiction."

    Which leads me to think that style has much more influence over grammar in fiction than 'correct usage' rules do.

    So if you guys don't mind, I would love to hear your basics of comma usage in fiction. Like, maybe a quick summary of your 'comma philosophy' or your 'comma usage tastes/pet peeves' for fiction; either how you approach it when you're writing your own, or for fiction you're reading.


    Some say style can superimpose itself over correct usage to improve the work. I've also heard that too much style can come off gimmicky and distract the reader.

    OTOH fiction written with extremely 'correct' grammar may read more like a term paper than a story. Do you agree? (I come from the screenplay world where writers tend to take liberties with grammar more than in novel writing.)

    Regarding commas, I usually go with what feels right but that can be very deceiving, which is why I'm starting this thread.

    I'd love to receive some guidance or opinions from posters of this forum. I chose to seek input here rather than a cold dry grammar book because, as alluded by the above quote in red, what is technically correct isn't always the right way to do it when writing fiction.

    Do you have any thoughts you will share?

    Thanks in advance.
     
  2. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,665
    Likes Received:
    5,159
    I think there are definitely times when "voice" trumps "correctness", but for me this is more likely to come at the sentence level rather than the punctuation level.

    In fiction I'm fine with sentence fragments, for example. Grammatically non-standard, but effective in fiction.

    But punctuation is mostly a tool to aid comprehension and clarity. I'd say there are rare authors who are masterful enough to be able to ignore those rules and still create something I want to read. Comma splices normally make my eyes bleed, but I'm okay when Dickens uses them. If Austen wants to roll around in double negatives, used for effect, I'm happy with that. Do I think Cormac McCarthy's non-standard punctuation of dialogue actually enhanced my enjoyment of his work? No, not really, but I was able to get past it because he has so many other strengths.

    For most of us, though? Punctuation helps the reader understand what you mean. If you use it in a non-standard way, it's harder for the reader to understand, and I don't think that's generally a good thing.
     
  3. Inks
    Offline

    Inks Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2015
    Messages:
    655
    Likes Received:
    167
    Ironic? The quoted line in red, discussing comma usage, missed two required commas.

    Comma usage dictates flow, enhances readability, and changes the way the text is perceived by the reader. Use them poorly and hilarity occurs at your expense. I.e.

    The signs that say, "Slow children at play"
    Or listing your reason for going to the hospital as: "Unable to eat diarrhea"

    And no, I am not going to mention that 2007 book which has a whole new meaning aside from its lack of a comma in the title. It stopped being funny in 2014.
     
    Sack-a-Doo! likes this.
  4. KhalieLa
    Offline

    KhalieLa It's not a lie, it's fiction. Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 11, 2015
    Messages:
    669
    Likes Received:
    390
    Location:
    United States
    Let's eat grandma!
     
    daemon, Mordred85 and Inks like this.
  5. Tea@3
    Offline

    Tea@3 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 18, 2015
    Messages:
    322
    Likes Received:
    200
    Location:
    USA
    Fascinating. And yeah, that would be my fault. I was paraphrasing. But, required? Really?

    This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. ^^ Thanks for letting me know. :)
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  6. Tenderiser
    Offline

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2015
    Messages:
    4,288
    Likes Received:
    5,161
    Location:
    London, UK
    I mostly see people saying this about comma splices, because they prefer the flow of spliced sentences to splitting them into two, correct, sentences. All you need to do is add a word like because, so, as, and it becomes correct AND flows. So I don't buy that they're necessary or advisable in fiction any more than in non.
     
    Tea@3 likes this.
  7. BrianIff
    Offline

    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2015
    Messages:
    1,294
    Likes Received:
    433
    Location:
    Canada
    I'm not so sure about the comma before 'but.' It doesn't look to me at all like a dependent clause following it. Very common mistake vice versa as well.
     
  8. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,665
    Likes Received:
    5,159
    I don't know - there are some pretty good comma splices out there - "I came, I saw, I conquered," doesn't have quite the same ring as "I came and I saw and I conquered." I'd be okay with semi-colons for that one, though. But what about "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." definitely better without conjunctions, and to my eye, better than with semi-colons.
     
    Sack-a-Doo! and Fernando.C like this.
  9. Tea@3
    Offline

    Tea@3 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Dec 18, 2015
    Messages:
    322
    Likes Received:
    200
    Location:
    USA
    Thanks. That is exactly how I feel.

    A few more thoughts:
    • I heard years ago 'when in doubt leave the comma out' but I honestly can't recall where I heard that. I do know it was in the 80s.
    • An accomplished English/Writing teacher I knew once told me (years ago) that once a person reaches a certain level of education in grammar that they've usually internalized it and forgotten specific rules. This definitely applies to me. But, with lack of use of a given rule over spans of time, even my internalised 'norms' can become fuzzy, which is why I sometimes look up words I once knew how to spell, and also why I like to double-take and even triple-take my grammar in rereads. I just want to be clear. (do you think the red sentence was unclear, because it lacks commas?)
    • Yet another thing is that I tend to write more conversationally than 'properly' and as a sort of continuation of the way that *I* read or speak. And with all due respect to @Inks regarding the missing commas in the red sentence above, for me it flows better off the tongue without any commas. (But I'm glad Inks pointed that out, because I am trying to learn. And I do hear you, Inks, and I know you are right about it, grammatically speaking) :) Also I'm glad Ink brought the red sentence into question because it's a perfect example of what I think Bayview meant about how literary license can allow for adjustments. (also, does the content of the red sentence, about commas, overrule the need for commas in the red sentence? Hmmm, lol) <-[more irony?]
    • I remember once I started reading a Hemingway novel and ---EDITED lol nope I won't go there.
    • Also, as a reader I get bogged down by writers who use commas and break up every little passage into a huge juxtaposition of pauses. It just flows awkwardly for me as a reader, so I try not to write that way.
    • And lastly, I think the internet, email, and text has taken its toll on writing style and attention spans over the past 20 or so years. (I'm speaking for myself here, of course. And, not that it's a good thing.)
    I'm loving the replies here. Please keep them coming.

    Thanks, everyone.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  10. Inks
    Offline

    Inks Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2015
    Messages:
    655
    Likes Received:
    167
    I have always been instructed to use a comma after statements that flow like this:

    I.e.
    "Yes, that is correct."
    "No, that is wrong."

    The second was based on the 'rule': "Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast."

    I think the term is "Coordinating Conjunction" in this case.
     
    Tea@3 likes this.
  11. BrianIff
    Offline

    BrianIff I'm so piano, a bad punctuator. Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 26, 2015
    Messages:
    1,294
    Likes Received:
    433
    Location:
    Canada
  12. Inks
    Offline

    Inks Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2015
    Messages:
    655
    Likes Received:
    167
    English has a different case for everything.

    "I would go for a walk but for the rain." - No comma needed.

    If I had put a comma, it would be wrong. So yeah... I should probably have clarified this better since MLA is more vague. I do not really use MLA and my ability to understand this in MLA-style is poor at best.
     
  13. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,819
    Likes Received:
    7,342
    Location:
    Scotland
    I know some purists will be all over me like a rash for saying this, but commas are often 'optional,' especially in fiction. They denote a pause, and sometimes it makes sense to put them in and sometimes not.

    Comma splices don't work very well most of the time, because the pause they denote isn't quite long enough, people read through them at a good clip, expecting what follows to be a clause of some kind, and instead they get another complete sentence, this is usually better denoted with a period, followed by a capped letter, but do what works, just make sure you're doing it deliberately, and are aware of the effect it will have on the reader. :)
     
    minstrel and Tea@3 like this.
  14. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,907
    Likes Received:
    10,097
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    I use them where they are required, correct, and obligatory. I do not embrace the "speed bump" comma, and I think whoever coined "a comma goes wherever you pause in speech" should be flogged. That's me. My take. As @BayView mentioned earlier - and to which I agree in full - there are many times when I am more than willing to break grammatical and syntactical convention in favor of what is idiomatically organic, but punctuation is not a place where I personally feel a need to get my artistic "freak on". I would much rather do that with my words.
     
    jannert, Tea@3 and BayView like this.
  15. datahound2u
    Offline

    datahound2u Member

    Joined:
    Nov 15, 2015
    Messages:
    98
    Likes Received:
    44
    Location:
    Texas
    Like @Tea@3, I generally use commas where they "feel right" in my writing. In most cases, I believe I use them correctly. However, as a reader, I find myself rereading some sentences void of commas to find the real meaning of the sentence.

    I recently finished reading a presumably self-published novel on Kindle written by such an author. If I knew where that author lived, I'd send him a box load of commas! (This is the same author who used purification where he should have used putrefaction.)

    In those writings where an author consistently writes without any semblance of correct comma usage, I have to wonder if it's because of conscious decisions or because he doesn't know any better.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
    Tea@3 likes this.
  16. jannert
    Offline

    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    7,819
    Likes Received:
    7,342
    Location:
    Scotland
    Yeah, I get what you're saying, BUT.... Sometimes there are just too many damn commas in a 'correct' sentence. They can interrupt the flow of dialogue, or possibly slow down a spot where you don't actually want to slow down. I'm not advocating that you dump them willy nilly, but I think it's fine to remove one or two, now and again, when you feel the need for speed. Commas aren't always speed bumps, of course; often they are needed for clarity. But they CAN be speed bumps. For example, in a story, I think it's perfectly okay to say : —a short sharp shock. (Bang bang bang) As opposed to having to say : —a short, sharp shock. (Bang, hic bang bang) They hit the eye and ear differently, and sometimes you want the first effect, sometimes the second. When writing fiction, I'd say it's okay to use whatever creates the effect you want.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
    Fernando.C, LinnyV, Tea@3 and 2 others like this.
  17. Tenderiser
    Offline

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 12, 2015
    Messages:
    4,288
    Likes Received:
    5,161
    Location:
    London, UK
    I think I was 23 when I learned that commas are NOT used to denote pauses. I kind of wish I hadn't, because now I see incorrect ones everywhere. And when I'm not concentrating, I get it wrong.

    On the plus side, I was already being paid quite a lot of money for my writing by 23, so it didn't hold me back. :p
     
    jannert and Tea@3 like this.
  18. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,907
    Likes Received:
    10,097
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    I agree with this last bit enough to call it an axiom. Comma-play just isn't the way I personally chose to skin this particular cat. If I need to lead the reader by the metaphorical ring in his/her nose - and I do do this as much as anyone - I do it in other ways. I instead play with the syntax, the form, the length or brevity of clauses. I dance and revel in fragmentary sentences. I consider carefully the length and meter of syllables. This is part of my voice as a writer. I do exactly what everyone here is mentioning when they talk about playing with commas; I just do it with words.
     
    Fernando.C and jannert like this.
  19. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,665
    Likes Received:
    5,159
    I'm trying to figure out how I'd write @jannert's example -

    I think this might be like the "singular they" issue, where I can accept it (sort of) when someone else does it, but just can't bring myself to do it. If I wanted that even, staccato rhythm I think maybe I'd try short-sharp-shock. Or short. sharp. shock. Neither of which is any more grammatically correct... maybe it's just that they're blatantly incorrect, so it's clear I was trying for an effect?

    But I think, like @Wreybies, I'd be more likely to just write it a different way. I'm a total believer in not taking any tools out of the writer's toolbox... at the same time, I'm having trouble with this tool. I have no excuse.
     
    jannert and Wreybies like this.
  20. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,725
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I loathe rules regarding commas. As far as I'm concerned, there are NO hard and fast rules regarding commas. Commas are tools, not laws. I do not want to write like Henry James, with 356 commas per sentence. Usually, if I can omit a comma, I do so. I like my prose to read with a slick speed most of the time.

    What are we trying to accomplish with punctuation, anyway? We're trying to clarify meaning, or course, but that's not all. We're dictating pace. We're establishing attitude. We're startling our reader with freshness; we're focusing his attention. We're blazing our own trails through his mind. So what if every so often he has to read a sentence twice? He discovers something the second time he didn't know before - not something about the plot or the character, but something about his own language.
     
    jannert likes this.
  21. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,907
    Likes Received:
    10,097
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    It's like one's idiolect. We all hear and understand uncounted different grammatical constructions, words, and phrasings that we never make use of because that's just not the way we personally choose to say a thing. Would that I were to explain to someone the archaic construction of the subjunctive clause in which we currently find ourselves, I doubt it would be a needed explanation for most. Not many begin a fully fledged subjunctive with the word would these days, but it's still understood by most, even if it does sound a bit stuffy and old fashioned. :) Comma-play just isn't part of my idiolect.
     
    BayView likes this.
  22. BayView
    Offline

    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 6, 2014
    Messages:
    5,665
    Likes Received:
    5,159
    I do like it that you've given it a sexy little nickname, though.

    Breath play, rope play, comma play - very risky, but apparently quite satisfying for those who are so inclined!
     
    Fernando.C and Wreybies like this.
  23. Wreybies
    Offline

    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 1, 2008
    Messages:
    18,907
    Likes Received:
    10,097
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Hee hee :bigtongue: Cheeky monkey. [​IMG]
     
    Cave Troll and BayView like this.
  24. Shadowfax
    Offline

    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2014
    Messages:
    2,529
    Likes Received:
    1,355
    If we take if I can omit a comma to be a sub-clause that has been comma'd off, and can be omitted without changing the grammar of the sentence, merely adding extra detail to the meaning, we end up with Usually I do so. Which implies that you, @minstrel , ...write like Henry James, with 356 commas per sentence.

    I'm not sure, from the rest of your post, that you meant your message to be construed thus.
     
  25. Cave Troll
    Online

    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 8, 2015
    Messages:
    3,818
    Likes Received:
    2,421
    Location:
    Where cushions are comfy, and straps hold firm.
    I manage 1 per sentence, unless it are a list. Though I have bad comma usage, so I have been told. :D
     
    Wreybies likes this.

Share This Page