The Proper Care and Feeding of Commas: The DON’Ts

I have been spending a lot of time proofreading articles to move onto the newer, shinier, smarter, sexier version of adoption.com.  During this time I have discovered that even people who generally have good command over grammar, spelling, and syntax can still often struggle with a major writing issue, an issue that comes in a deceptively tiny package.  It’s this:

,

Do you see that thing?  Right up there, between these paragraphs.  The comma.  It looks so small, so insignificant.  Almost like a fleck on the screen that you need to wipe off.  And yet it holds within its tiny frame the power to destroy otherwise good writing.

And what makes the comma’s power worse is this: Commas are tricky.  They are finicky.  They are delicate.  They can sometimes seem unpredictable.

And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, they need to be used gently or they will rise up in retaliation and wreak havoc on your prose.

Sadly, like a lot of punctuation (take, for a sad example, the comma’s oft-maltreated upside-down pal, the apostrophe), the comma is often misused, abused, or neglected.  As a result, it does, indeed, spend a fair amount of time making good writers look like fools and poor writers look like imbeciles.

Many writers believe that if they just use a comma “when it feels good,”  they will not be led astray.  Sometimes this works.  However, some writers have better internal comma sense than others, and lest you become one of those writers whose inflated comma hubris is blocking his ability to properly use the comma, I am here to provide some guidance.

In the world of commas, the rules are broken up into three major categories:

The DON’Ts, the DO’s, and the MAYBEs.

And because I recognize that no one (except me) wants to read pages and pages of endless prattling about comma rules, I’m going to restrict this post to the DON’Ts and do some follow-up posts on the DO’s and the MAYBEs in the very near future.

And with that, the DON’Ts:

1) DON’T use a comma just because you think that a pause in your prose might be good right there.  

That’s when you end up with sentences like this:  George languished in the prison for, twenty years.  (Shudder.)

2) DON’T use a comma to separate a subject from its verb. 

Subjects and verbs go together like peanut butter and jelly, and putting a comma between them is like putting a slice of lettuce between the two.  Yuck.  This means you should never do this:

George, languished in the prison for many years.

This one is pretty obvious, right?  Most people get that one.  But it becomes tricky when your subject is doing multiple things in a sentence, like this:

Alexandra reached into the bag and pulled out an apple.

Do not make Alexandra reach into the bag, and pull out an apple.  That is annoying.  And wrong.

Exception:  If you are describing something someone did in a list, you’ll need to use commas.  As in, Alexandra reached into the bad, pulled out an apple, and flung it across the room.

3) DON’T use a comma to separate two independent clauses.   This is called a comma splice.   

In plain English, that means you’re not supposed to separate two phrases that could stand alone as sentences with just a comma.  You can separate them with a period, you can separate them with a semicolon, or you can separate them with a comma combined with a conjunction (and, but, yet, etc).

Exception:  Tiny independent clauses– as in two words long– can sometimes be put together with a comma, as in: Joe laughed, Julie chortled.

Exception: When separating two indepedendnt clauses, the conjunction “however” should always be preceded by a semi-colon, not a comma; however,  many people forget this.

Exception:  If you can get away with it.  In the words of Lynne Truss, in her perennial work Eats, Shoots & Leaves, “Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing.  Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous.  Done ignorantly by irnogrant people, it is awful.”

4) DON’T use a comma to separate a verb from its object.

Verbs and objects are like Lilo and Stitch.  If you separate them, Stitch is likely to become violent.

  • Bad:  She walked, to the park.
  • Good: She walked to the park.
  • Bad: He evaluated, the depth and breadth of his existence and found it to be shallow.
  • Good: He evaluated the depth and breadth of his existence and was relieved to find that, though he was shallow, he at least knew how to use a comma properly.

5) DON’T use a comma to set off a quotation that is part of a broader sentence.

People feel antsy about comma usage when quotation marks are around, and understandably so.  Most of us know that you’re supposed to introduce quotations with a comma, like this:

Joe said, “I felt like eating a peanut butter sandwich, so I did.”

HOWEVER,  if you’re incorporating this quotation into a broader sentence, you probably won’t need a comma, like this:

RIGHT:  Joe said he “felt like eating a peanut butter sandwich.”

WRONG:  Joe said he, “felt like eating a peanut butter sandwich.”

 

And that concludes our comma DON’Ts for today.  Stay tuned for more comma drama.

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