Cut Your Editor’s Stress: How to Use a FUCKING COMMA
I didn’t say this originally, but let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start. If that takes you back to your grammar school days…all the better. Do yourself and your editor a favor, and think about your comma usage with me.
The Do Re Mi’s of Comma Usage
To throw in another quote I love (which is NOT from a musical this time), I turn to the Oscar Wilde of the Twentieth century, Christopher Hitchens. The Hitch is one of the few who dominate my list of favorite quotes, and you’ll be hearing a lot of them in this series. He said,
To my writing classes I used to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write.
Yes, this has a lot to do with the subject at hand. It actually has a lot to do with every aspect of writing, but it applies to comma usage more than most, so let’s dive in.
Commas are pauses.
There are a ton of rules on comma use, and like all rules of grammar, they exist to make your writing comprehensible. The author ALWAYS knows what the author means. That’s the whole reason to have an editor. If the editor doesn’t follow your meaning, you need to fix your text.
Don’t argue. You’re wrong if a reader doesn’t get your point, and editors read with that in mind.
- “Readers won’t understand this.”
- “This doesn’t say what you want it to mean.”
- “That punctuation colors the meaning in a manner you did not intend.”
These are sentences I have told writers thousands of times about passages, the moment I first read them.
Hitchens didn’t stop at the end of that quotation above, though. He followed it up with this:
Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?”
Do you want to know an editor’s secret about comma usage? The most effective way to get a quick grip on something is to read it out loud. It can be under your breath, or even silently, but involve your breath. Say what you wrote, even if you only “speak it” inside your head.
If you pause and there’s no punctuation where you pause, see how it reads with a comma at the pause. The rules of commas are handy to know, but they are not as essential as knowing how people speak.
Commas are generally optional. If you lack a comma in something you wrote then all that will happen is that the reader will not pause whether you think they should pause or not and you can make your writing feel breathless this way and a lot of times that will not be what you want to happen. It’s a tool. If you, have a comma, the reader, does, pause, whether you intend, it or, not.
Learning To Talk: Listening
Listen to people talk. Learn to hear commas. You can hear them. (You can hear semicolons, too.)
If you learn to talk, as the Hitch implied—whether you actually speak well or not; I don’t—you’ll grok commas innately, which is what you need to do in order to write well. The more intuitive your sense of grammar is, the more effective your writing will be. Even if it’s “wrong” grammatically, it will be usually be perfectly comprehensible.
This will make the comma another weapon in your writing arsenal, rather than a stumbling block. Listening to conversations analytically is one of those things most serious writers understand the significance of. It’s up there with people-watching and feeling your soul shrivel in front of a blank page.
Note: Speech patterns are not the end of how commas work. They are just the beginning. Good writing is never as simple as just real speech put into text, good writing is a higher level than that. But clarity of thinking is the goal, and realism comes from a rational understanding of what goes on. Truth is stranger than fiction, and real speech patterns don't make good reading unless the thought behind it is crystalline. That's what Hitchens's point was in the second part of the quote, but this is about entry-level stuff, so get the speech part down first.
Uh-oh…Real Grammar Rules
I’m not going to give you a list of grammatical rules here, because comma usage “in the field” is subjective and debatable. But you should know them.
Rest assured, I am working on an actual Smutpunk grammar for you. In the meantime, I will pass along the best advice I’ve ever gotten as a writer where grammar is concerned. It’s fresh on my mind since it’s that time of year for me.
Read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” every year for the rest of your life. And you have no excuse not to do so. That link takes you right to it. Don’t be afraid, it’s short.
You don’t need to agree with the book, but as King said in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, it is remarkably low-bullshit. Most of the advice is sound, even when it’s unnecessary or overly authoritarian.
Comma Parting Shot
There is one absolute I will give you about commas.
The Oxford, or serial, comma, is always the best choice, and it is always correct. It is always clearer to the reader than choosing to drop it.
Do you know why we have the option not to use it? Because it saved newspapers money by using less ink. That’s an editorial ‘bottom-line’ concern that writers should never pay heed to, and should fight against. I will champion the Oxford comma to my last breath.
One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.
—Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, 1st century AD
If you liked this, subscribe to my mailing list in the sidebar, read me on Amazon, and check out my youtube channel!