Every Writer’s Nemesis

Library shelves bulge with volumes dedicated to the rules of grammar, and yet, writers, teachers, and scholars debate the placement of a comma.

Part of the problem stems from language evolving—as humans evolve—some good, some bad. Published writing incorporates a multitude of styles, some writers choosing long flowing sentences littered with phrases where a breath is needed—commas indicate a short pause—while others use little or no punctuation despite a needed slow-down.

But there is more to it than a writer finding their voice or casting all rules over the cliff in a desire to “stand-out” on the crowded hilltop. Punctuation, commas especially, give sentences their cadence, their continuity, and the flow with which the writer weaves their tale.

The “Do Not Do” list of January 10th had a sentence rendered unruly without commas.

Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean your nuances and the tempo of your sentences.

With commas added, the sentence makes sense:

Learn the rules of punctuation so readers can understand what you mean, your nuance, and the tempo of your sentences.

If you have problems with commas, study Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Although written long ago (recently updated), this “little book” is still required reading on the finest college and university campuses. Why? Using simple examples, the book illustrates the basics of sentence structure and style.

Another place to learn about comma usage is online at Grammar Book

As with any rule, there are times when a sentence is better served when a rule is broken; the main criteria is efficiency and clarity for the reader. Here’s a sentence from my novel, The Returning, when a merchant stands before the King, having been robbed while transporting wagons filled with weapons and gems to fund an upcoming war:

“You know I would have given my life to protect your goods but there was no opportunity to stand and face them like a man and—“

Normally a comma would be placed before but, (and before the final and), but I wanted to show the merchant rambling, breathless.

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Side Note: Dashes at the end of a sentence indicate the speaker is cut off in mid-sentence; in this case, the King demanding the merchant be silent. This is different than using ellipses ( . . .) at the end of a sentence when the words (or thoughts) trail off without a conclusion. The ellipses at the end of a sentence, as when placed in the middle, shows the reader that words are missing:

Today, after all the votes were cast, the young deputy trumped the old sheriff.

Today . . . the young deputy trumped the old sheriff.
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The use of commas can be a tricky business. The best advice I can give is this: Read, Study, Learn. See how other writers handle different situations, ask yourself why they chose to use a comma (or not), and practice writing sentences a variety of ways to find the best one for your purpose. Again, clarity is the key ingredient, and ambiguity is your enemy.

There is a time when commas are unnecessary: during the first draft. If while writing you sense a pause, type in a comma, but there is no need to get too hung up on grammar when in the throes of creation. For me, all bets are off during the first draft—the main purpose is to get the ideas from your brain to paper or computer screen.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Author: Rick "C" Langford

Writer, blogger, Business Owner, dreamer, and fantasy lover

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