Yo, Writerly Ones, How’s Your Relationship with Commas?

The biggest problem most editors, publishers, agents, producers, and even – OMG! – readers have with writers is…

Wait for it…


Here’s how to fix that:

by Dana Isaacson

Other teachers at my junior high school used new English textbooks, but in Mr. B.’s classroom the grammar books were over twenty years old and well-worn. Our seventh-grade English teacher, an older gent, had a well-deserved reputation for volatility. Any student who could not recite the helping verbs in under four seconds had to be prepared for sarcastic derision. Anyway, Mr. B. taught me grammar and punctuation.

Fix it later

He might have been tough, but you can expect New York publishers to be tougher. They won’t yell at you. Worse, they’ll ignore you.

After finishing a novel’s first draft, one writer recently said, “I’ll let the publishers unkink all the kinks.” Indeed, a book publisher will hammer—or should I be gentler and say massage?—your manuscript into impeccable shape, but a manuscript must pass through many hands before it reaches a copy editor’s desk. It seems unwise for prospective book authors to count on others to ignore their mistakes.

Fix it now

Don’t expect to get e.e. cummings’ editor. Agentseditors or readers cannot be reliably counted upon to perceive the beauty beyond the haze. Casual punctuation is perceived as sloppy and unprofessional, and there’s no time like the present to get your book in shape.

Let’s start with commas

This sentence-breaking punctuation is too often misused and abused. While there are certainly more comma rules than what follows, these 17 rules focus on common danger zones for comma confusion.

1. When addressing someone directly by title or name, set that off with a comma.

“Back row monitors, retrieve the red reading book.”
“Did you lose your hall pass, Mr. Nielsen?”

2. If “but” separates two independent clauses, add a comma.

Other teachers used new textbooks, but in Mr. B.’s classroom the grammar books were old and well-worn.

The two independent clauses in the sentence above can each stand on their own. You could chop this sentence in half; the resulting sentences would be fine. In such instances, add commas.

3. If that same “but” does not bring together two separate clauses, commas become unnecessary.

NO: Mr. B. was frightening, but effective.
YES: Mr. B. was frightening but effective.
NO: The past is, but a memory.
YES: The past is but a memory.

4. When “and” links two independent clauses, put a comma before it.

“Ands” are like “buts.” If two clauses in a sentence can each stand on their own, these independent clauses should be separated by a comma.

His eyes were yellow, and his hands shook.
I was a great reader, and the school library’s shelves held countless unread volumes….

Read it all at CareerAuthors