Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Commas Are Our Friends

Jennifer asks if you know when to use a comma

One of the most important things to search your manuscript for during the editing process, after you’d done the big stuff (like making sure you have a plot!) is checking punctuation.

There are lots of random punctuation marks that you want to make sure you use correctly, but the most common source of error is going to be the comma.

I am really good at proofing other people’s work; less so with my own, but that’s normal for everyone, and that’s why we need other people to check our work. When I was in high school, my best friend used to ask me to proof her essays. She used commas, every, time, she, breathed. It got to be a joke between us. She’d hand me her paper and ask me to look it over, but “get rid of the commas.” I’d tell her she either needed to stop putting in a comma every time she took a breath, or she needed to work on her lung capacity.

Today, I have a friend with the opposite problem. He contributes monthly articles to a newsletter that I edit. He writes many things, but they’re usually speeches—if no one is reading what you write, you can be a bit less concerned about punctuation. So when he gives me his articles, I’m constantly adding commas and semi-colons. To him, I say, “add a comma when you take a breath!”

If you’re going to write, make sure you have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style with you. It’s essential. I’m not going to go through all the rules here, but know when to use a comma and when not to use a comma. Learn it well enough to be able to put most of them in (or not) during your writing process, so that when it comes time to edit, you’ll have less work to do.


  1. Commas are a nightmare! That's firstly because even style guides differ on when they should and should not be used - and so do editors. Secondly, British English tends to use less commas than American English. Thirdly, some 'rules' have changed since I learnt English grammar. For example, I was taught that a comma should never be used before a conjunction like 'and', 'but' 'or' etc. Now it seems to be the norm to use them before conjunctions, but I can still see my English teacher's frown when I use them!

  2. You're right, British English and American English are different. I was taught TO put them before conjunctions! I personally am a fan of my own "when you breathe" rule. :)

  3. The 'when you breathe' rule is great. Even in written work, doing a read aloud is very helpful in any stage of the editing process. It's a must do at least once.

    The rules for commas in a series change often too. Sometimes you need one before the and (red, white, and blue) sometimes you don't (red, white and blue).

    Who can keep up?!

  4. Agreed, Debra. And reading out loud is so helpful for many, many reasons.

  5. I imagine each publisher has a set of comma rules.

    I have the Strunk & White book. When I submit, I will use that as my guide.

  6. A publisher won't turn you down for following the Oxford comma versus another rule. They may, however, turn you down if you don't know any comma rules, or other punctuation rules either.