By JBeckingham on Dec 2, 2013 at 10:41 AM
  1. JBeckingham

    JBeckingham Member

    Dec 1, 2009
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    Melbourne, Australia

    Orange Pear Apple Bear

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by JBeckingham, Dec 2, 2013.

    I have always had an issue with commas – I think it first stemmed from my English teacher’s rule of thumb that you should “put a comma everywhere you pause for breath”. I have since come to the conclusion that I must breathe a lot when I write, because the damned things seemed to crawl over the page like ant footprints. Since the first time I got a manuscript back from my editor covered in red (a large part removing errant commas), I have struggled with both overuse and the inevitable overcorrection of underuse.

    Most of my writing is done by instinct, moulded by what I feel works or doesn’t work as the words flow from head to page, but not commas. They are probably the only component I have ever had to really think about rather than just coming as part of a natural process. To try and combat this, I spent a long time studying the exact grammatical rules (this website was particularly useful: The problem was, it was a dry, unemotional understanding – not the effortless “in the natural flow of writing, a comma would go here”, but more of a “the rule says a comma here, so a comma here” kind of feeling. Still, I took what I could get.

    It wasn’t until I was reading a book for my kids that I came across a something that put one rule together in such a way that it “clicked” in my head. The book itself was called “Orange Pear Apple Bear”, and it was a simple yet brilliant example of how to use a comma in description.
    The words read “Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear” and had a picture of a Bear holding three pieces of fruit: an Orange, an Apple and a Pear.

    The next page read “Apple, Pear, Orange Bear” and had a picture of a bright Orange Bear holding two pieces of fruit, an Apple and a Pear.
    Next was “Apple, Orange, Pear Bear”, and I’m sure you can imagine the green, pear bottomed Bear picture.

    To me this was a fantastic visual representation of a common misuse of commas. People will often write things like “the plain was filled with long wavy grass” when they really mean “long, wavy grass”. Is the grass long and wavy, or is it an overgrown local grass hybrid called “wavy grass”? You need the comma to separate the different descriptive words so the reader knows that “orange, bear” means an orange and a bear, not an orange bear.

    After this childish but oh so effective lesson, I started looking for more humorous examples of comma use to cement the rules in my head. Luckily, one came to me as a joke email from a friend barely a day later. It was a screenshot of a daughter SMSing her dad that read:

    MSG: Let’s go eat Dad
    Reply: “Let’s go eat Dad” or “Let’s go eat, Dad”? Punctuation saves lives.

    I found it funny (though I admit, I have a warped sense of humour), but it also proves a comma point that I have too often come across when editing.
    “Let’s go eat Dad” means your father will be eaten for dinner.
    “Let’s go eat, Dad” means you are talking to your father and telling him you want to go and eat.

    You need that comma to show that the last noun is not the subject of the verb before it, but the thing you are talking to. i.e. that you are talking to Dad rather than eating him.
    This particular issue has also come up a lot when editing stories, because it’s an easy one to glide over in the flow of writing, or because the rhythm when saying the line out loud has no pause, so people think the writing should have no pause.

    ‘All right, guys, let’s go!’ is often written ‘All right guys, let’s go!’
    Why? Perhaps because there’s a comma afterwards, so people think one before is not needed, or perhaps because people can imagine a swarthy drill sergeant shouting ‘All right guys’ as a single phrase with no pause. But even though there may be no pause when speaking, you need it when writing.

    ‘All right, guys, let’s go!’ means you’re talking to the guys and saying ‘All right, let’s go.’
    ‘All right guys, let’s go!’ means you’re talking only to those guys who are all right and telling them ‘let’s go.’

    Linking the second example to the first, let’s try replacing ‘All right’ with ‘Let’s go eat’ and see if that helps clarify the comma mistake. Hmmm, not pretty.

    To me, commas are a necessary evil, and to others they are just a thing to be used (or misused) in the natural flow of things, but they are undeniably very powerful. Using too many commas can make a piece seem stilted and hard to get into, while too few can make a piece run together and really hard to decipher. As with most things, striking a happy medium is the key to success, and the best way to stick that happy medium is to know what you are doing. If study is your thing, then by all means you should learn the rules of commas by heart – but if a clever joke will help you to understand, retain and apply your knowledge, then do yourself a favour and let your inner child giggle. Go on, you know you want to.


Discussion in 'Articles' started by JBeckingham, Dec 2, 2013.

    1. peachalulu
      Great article! Love how you made it so simple.
      Every time I get grammer books the sentences are mind bogglingly dull that I have a hard time learning.
      JBeckingham likes this.
    2. DrWhozit
      Good thing you used Dad instead of Mom...

      I was taught slightly different rule of thumb ideas. "If in doubt, use a comma." The main thing a writer needs to know is the meaning of prepositions and prepositional phrases. Separate the word. Pre - position. It is something, for example a pear bear imported from the pare bare community, that is used to differentiate that something from the rest. Writing " We need that apple bare, too," is the same as, though less awkward, using "Too, we need that apple bear," or "Also, we need that bear bare."

      I'm more apt to debate the need to remove a comma than to add one. Ant footprints need work, too.
    3. jannert
      Ah, see this example:

      Of course, using the comma is the 'correct' thing to do. However, that original sentence in the middle of a story would not even give me pause. If it was named Long Wavy Grass, or Wavy Grass as in Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or Spotted Woodpecker, it would be capped, wouldn't it? That makes it a proper name, and these are always capped.

      My husband was a working journalist for nearly 25 years for a national newspaper (a news sub, and later 'splash sub'—who does the front page—whose job it was to correct and fit words other people wrote into the actual newspaper.) He told me the newer accepted method of comma usage is to use them only when necessary to convey meaning. If the meaning isn't compromised by leaving them out, then leave them out.

      I resisted this 'incorrect' view of his, until I began to see how it worked in context. It does work. Nobody is going to think the sentence: the plain was filled with long wavy grass, is going to mean anything other than the fact that the (ordinary) grass is long AND wavy.

      Orange can mean two things, either a colour or a fruit. Therefore, to make the bear sentence make sense, you really DO need that comma. Same thing with eats shoots and leaves. Shoots is another word with two meanings. Shoots, as in fires a gun. Shoots, as in young plants or buds. In these instances, the comma is needed to make things clear.
    4. JBeckingham
      Hi Jannert,

      Thanks for your feedback – I have a feeling you and I might have had a similar conversation to this in the past, am I right?

      I am going to have to respectfully disagree with you on this one. I actually chose that example precisely because it illustrates something that people can often get wrong. If I read “long wavy grass” in a story, I would likely know that you were referring to grass that is long and wavy, but that in itself doesn’t make it grammatically correct. If I read the phrase “Let’s go eat Dad” I would also surmise that you were going to have lunch with you father rather than turning cannibal, but it is still grammatically incorrect.

      One thing I learned from many hard-earned rejection letters (as well as some time on the other side of the fence) is that publishers and agents get inundated by so many manuscripts that they often look for some point of difference to either accept it or reject it. Does that mean every agent would look at a manuscript that has some grammatical mistakes and automatically throw it on the reject pile? No, of course not, but I also think you don’t do yourself any favours by doing so either.

      From personal experience, if I had put in “long wavy grass” in one of my manuscripts rather than “long, wavy grass”, both my editor and my publisher would have told me to change it, and having done professional editing and read-throughs, I would say the same to any author I was reviewing. That being said, your story is your creation, and yours to craft as your imagination decrees. What fun would reading be if everyone had the same style, right?
      I know I can be somewhat of a stickler for these things, but I just hope I can be of some help along the way as well.
      jannert likes this.
    5. jannert
      I find it hard to disagree with you, in principle. I'm an ex-English teacher, and used to be very picky about those kinds of things myself. However, my husband is also a respected professional, and he says this kind of thing is changing. Maybe it is.

      The problem is that the person making the decision about what will and what won't make sense needs to be spot-on. Some journalists get it very wrong as well, believe me!

      (We might well have had this discussion before at some point.)

      I guess if a passage contains a couple of adjectives that clearly relate to the noun I might be tempted to remove the comma. For the purposes of fiction it gave him a short sharp shock reads differently from it gave him a short, sharp shock. The first example is more alliterative and actually conveys the meaning BETTER than the comma-d version. (In my opinion, anyway.) There is also no doubt as to the meaning in either case.

      "Let's go eat Dad," however, CAN be misread. I'd definitely put the comma there! Unless, of course, the speaker is a cannibal and Dad is trussed up inside a cook pot.
      Conner Guidry and JBeckingham like this.
    6. writer one
      writer one
      I to am hooked on commas, haven't a clue why. It's interesting when we speak no commas but only when one writes. There's a mystery to work on. writer one

    7. writer one
      writer one
      I understand better than most we write as we speak. But when we see the words on the screen something changes in us.There is more than just saying (I love you as well). When one does good thinks to prove they love that person as with ones emotions, they to can be verbally written and by using the arms and with the fingers with those who are deaf.

      Even those who painted pictures on there cave walls. My problem is the flow of words in a sentence. I believe in a subject and a predicate in all the sentences but with five sentences with both five subjects and five predicates are to much for me. After the first sentence I am writing off the top of my head. I cannot see any order except the first sentence.

      I want so bad to have some order to my writing which I call babbling. Am I out in left field here about writing? I've yet found my voice as well. writer one
      JBeckingham likes this.
    8. JBeckingham
      Writer one, a writing voice is a very tricky thing to find, but with a lot of patience and love of writing, you'll get there.
      The key is to keep writing, keep reading and keep working at it. Put all your "babbling" down on paper or word processor, then refine it. Take what you like and polish it, wash away what you don't like and then what's left is your voice.
      Posting here is a great place to get critique and learn what works and what doesn't. Keep at it.
    9. writer one
      writer one
      Thank you both. Writer One

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