1. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    Question on comma usage

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by blackstar21595, Aug 1, 2013.

    One of the greatest pieces of advice that I got was that writers should read the works of excellent writers and learn from them. i did this a lot with the short story collections of the writer Tobias Wolff. What I learned from his writing is sentence structure. But one thing I noticed about him is that he didn't have commas in places where I thought they should be. I thought this was an error on my part, since critics and I loved his writing, so I started to not use commas in those "certain places." Here are a few sentences that I made, and I'll show you ones from Wolff. Where would commas be needed in these sentences?

    "I pulled my suitcase, and its wheels rolled along the floor until I reached the sidewalk. At the crosswalk the pedestrian signal showed a red hand as cars passed, blowing wind against my body. After five minutes a walking man’s white silhouette appeared, and I crossed the street. I stopped in front of the subway station."
    I was told that commas were needed between crosswalk and the, and minutes and a.

    What do my fellow writers think?

    - Wolff, from his short story "Hunters in the Snow."
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    For a nonfiction piece, I would agree. For fiction, it's up to the writer. A comma essentially tells the reader where to pause. So not using a comma gives the sentence a sense of urgency.
     
  3. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Whoever told you this is clearly a disciple of the "everywhere there is a pause in speech" doctrine. This school of thought creates a fetish of the comma. I firmly belong in the other camp. I do not believe in adding decorative commas and I don't buy the "no commas make it sound rushed" theory. I personally use commas where they are called for by syntax, no more, be it formal writing or fiction. These places for commas that were pointed out to you would be better addressed by smoothing the syntax, not adding punctuation.
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    For fiction, I use commas where I feel like it, depending on the flow I want to create for the narrative. It seems clear to me from a lot of reading that many fiction writers do this, and if that's how a person wants to approach a work they should do so.
     
  5. E. C. Scrubb
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    E. C. Scrubb Active Member

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    Laughing.

    I tend to follow standard English in narrative sections, but in dialogue, I use to them to replicate speech patterns.
     
  6. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is what I try to do in fiction and non-fic.
    I feel a little uncomfortable about adding a comma where there's a "natural" pause (maybe I pause unnaturally?). However, I was reading Stephen King's Wolves of the Calla yesterday, and he had put commas where I probably wouldn't have, yet they did sort of kind of work...
     
  7. Robin Murarka
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    Robin Murarka Member

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    His paragraph does move slightly fast without commas, but it all depends on the context. There are no piercing grammar mistakes that stick out to me, nor do I see any places one should add commas. The sentences are written as is, and maybe it should have been formatted in a more paced manner.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I disagree. Commas would not be incorrect there, but they would not be required. In these examples, commas are a style choice rather than a grammatical requirement.
     
  9. JetBlackGT
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    JetBlackGT Contributing Member

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    Commas are traditionally used to set off prepositional phrases.

    *Technically* there should be one at the beginning and the end of each phrase. So <--- that sentence [properly punctuated] would look like:

    *Technically* there should be one, at the beginning, and the end, of each phrase.

    And there is no actual rule about not putting commas next to the word [and]. As you can see, using the prepositional phrase model, it is actually supposed to be there, in some instances. But the GREAT thing about English is that you can often do what you want. You can even break rules in order to have your sentence make a statement that is better or funnier than it would otherwise be! :)

    YAY ENGLISH!

    Wen re-reading/editing, you will find that having more than about three prepositional phrases in a row becomes exhausting to read. Occasionally you will find a book where entire, long paragraphs are one sentence composed of phrase, after phrase. If I find more than one paragraph, like that, I typically stop reading that book :(
     
  10. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I believe your own piece reads perfectly well the way you've written it, Blackstar.

    Where I tripped up was in Wolff's piece! Specifically his sentence: One driver stopped for him but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub's back and hit the gas.

    I blubbed through that a few times, wondering why it seemed clumsy. Then I realised ...it would read better if it had a comma between him and but. Like so: One driver stopped for him, but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub's back and hit the gas.

    I'd say when in doubt, leave it out! (Unintential rhyme, sorry ...:p) However, when in doubt get somebody ELSE to read your piece out loud and see if/where they stumble. Then re-think a comma for that place.
     
  11. ladybird
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    ladybird Contributing Member

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    What a useful resource!
    [MENTION=52325]blackstar21595[/MENTION] I was also told that in order to improve my writing I had to read the works of great writers. However, how do you define great? I enjoy books by Jodi Picoult, but apart from her can anyone recommend good writers in the same genre, please?



    I think as far as commas go in this extract, it is purely a matter of style; short sentences to create tension.
     
  12. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    When I read that sentence from Wolff I tripped up on it too! It's good getting this feedback from you guys. I'm happy that it's a stylistic thing, not a technical error.
     

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