Trying to Crack the Comma Conundrum

Calanthe

I happened across Calanthe's article on commas over at Live Journal. I learned quite a bit and had a good laugh, too, so I contacted her and asked if I could add her article to our course offerings. She graciously said yes. And a reminder warning that this essay is filled with explicit examples from the Harry Potter fandom.

Hello, my name is Calanthe, and I don’t know how to use commas properly.

There. I’ve said it. Sadly, I don’t feel any lighter for having confessed my affliction to the world. However, I’m not going to let that stop me making a twat of myself by trying to sort out my inadequacy here and now, in full view of a ton of people who probably know how to use a comma far better than I do.

The information below is my best effort at teaching myself the rules of the comma. I hope it will also prove to be an accessible and usable tool for other people, particularly those kindred spirits who wilt in fear at the first sign of words like ‘conjunction’, ‘subordinate clause’, and ‘apposition’. If this post is useful, please tell me! Tell others, too! If anything in this post is incorrect, I BEG YOU TO TELL ME QUICKLY so that I don’t pass on my errors to other people.

For the sake of transparency, I have read and referenced the following books in my pursuit of the information contained in this post:

Which isn’t to say that if I get anything in this post wrong these books are to blame. Clearly, it’ll just be me being too stupid to understand what they’re saying. Thanks to maya231 for the late beta.

Compare and contrast the writer/comma relationship to dominance/submission, and draw your own conclusions about which one tops from the bottom.

Of course, I am joking. *weak laugh*

“… don’t use a comma like a stupid person. I mean it. More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity.”

L Truss, 2005.

Let’s be clear about this upfront: commas should be REALLY EASY to use. The speech test is the principle I use the most for deciding where to put a comma in a sentence. I can often be heard talking out loud to my computer as I type. The main problem I can see with this method of comma insertion is that in a global forum like Live Journal, varying speech patterns and linguistic inflections between countries means that my obvious place to pause in a sentence might not be the same as yours. I can’t see a way around that, but it’s something to bear in mind the next time you’re reading something and tutting over comma placements.

The majority of fanfic writers would probably benefit from a simple list of what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to using commas. And the stumbling block is that there is no definitive list that is universally agreed by all the style guides from every country in the world. With only a little research time online, you can undermine almost every ‘rule’ for commas there is, which is what makes them so bloody hard to get a grip on.

But do not despair! There are few people who couldn’t improve their comma usage just by thinking sensibly about some of the more common comma rules. It might help you to do what I do: aim to consistently attain junior school level punctuation at the very least in all your work (In the UK, this means children aged 7 to 11.). ‘The Usborne Guide’ referenced above is aimed at that age group. It’s a couple of quid from Amazon. Most average-ability fanfic writers will learn something from that book. And, really, can you face not being smarter than a 10-year-old?

For those of you who insist on a tick list for correct comma usage, the best I can do is present a basic list of points, cross-referenced and combined from all the books mentioned above. If you can integrate these ‘rules’ into your writing you won’t go far wrong.

 

Commas used to separate lists of words.

Draco’s wardrobe consisted of robes in jade green, lime green, bottle green, moss green, olive green and Slytherin sexgod!green.

The list in this sentence comprises of all the different greens. There’s a comma between every different green, right?

Wrong. There is no comma between ‘olive green’ and ‘Slytherin sexgod!green’.

Instead, there is an ‘and’, and a lot of reference books tell you that a comma is not necessary before ‘and’ in a list. This is because every comma in a list is usually replacing the word ‘and’ anyway, so you don’t need both.

However (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?), If you did put a comma after ‘olive green’ and before ‘and’, you would be using what is commonly known as the Oxford comma (a.k.a. the ‘serial comma’). Some guides say this is okay – not strictly necessary, but okay – while other guides say this is comma overkill.

Draco’s wardrobe consisted of robes in jade green, lime green, bottle green, moss green, olive green, and Slytherin sexgod!green.

I tend to use the Oxford comma – out of habit, I suppose. All I’m saying to you is that this is one of the times when the rules don’t agree, so my advice to you would be to plump for one rule and ALWAYS use it. Don’t switch between the two, because it looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.

Before I move on, there’s one last thing to think about in relation to lists of words. Some words that look like lists actually aren’t, so they don’t need commas to separate them. An example would be:

Albus Dumbledore was a stupid old man.

‘Stupid’ and ‘old’ could be a list, right? Well, in some circumstances, yes. But here, the two adjectives (‘stupid’ and ‘old’) work together to convey a single idea. We are not saying Albus Dumbledore was a stupid and old man in the same way we wouldn’t say Harry has the most beautiful and green eyes. Any time you aren’t sure whether you need commas in a list of words like this, try saying ‘and’ in the place you want to put your comma. If it doesn’t sound right, you don’t need a comma.

 

Commas used for joining sentences together.

Ginny wanted to play a private game of ‘hide the sausage’ with Harry, but he wanted to play it with Draco instead.

The above (completely factual) sentence could also be written as two separate sentences without altering their meaning:

Ginny wanted to play a private game of ‘hide the sausage’ with Harry. He wanted to play it with Draco instead.

It is easy to make them into a single sentence by adding a comma and a conjunction. (A conjunction is a joining word, such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘nor’, ‘yet’, ‘for’, ‘so’, and ‘or’.) As long as you add both a comma and a conjunction, you’re not going to go wrong. If you forget to add the extra word, you will find yourself in the choppy waters of ‘the comma splice’ (hold that thought for another few hundred words).

There are some words that commonly get treated as conjunctions when they aren’t. Those are words like ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’. If you want to use either of these words to join two sentences together, you absolutely can. BUT you need to remember another rule before you do it. Look at the two sentences below:

Draco announced that he was going off to polish his broomstick. However, Harry knew that it was a euphemism for having a wank.

Presented like this, they are absolutely fine. Note the comma after ‘however’. You always, always need it, wherever the word is placed in a sentence, and the same goes if you’re using ‘nevertheless’, ‘consequently’, ‘moreover’, etc. as well. But if you want to get rid of the full stop and join the two sentences together, you need to use a semicolon in place of the full stop. Like this:

Draco announced that he was going off to polish his broomstick; however, Harry knew that it was a euphemism for having a wank.

But let’s not go mad on the joining sentences thing, here. If your two sentences are really short, and especially if they relate to the same subject, you don’t need to bother with a comma at all:

Harry took his shirt off and Draco did the same.

Common sense, people.

Clear? Super!

 

Interlude: comma splices (a.k.a. splice commas).

What is a comma splice? I hear you cry. It’s when you have two completely separate sentences joined together, or spliced, by a comma. Like this:

Harry watched with interest as Malfoy’s face flushed pink, he wondered where he could buy his own vibrating broomstick.

To a Brit like me, this is wrong. But to anyone from, say, France, it would be perfectly acceptable. Different countries, different rules. Let’s assume for the moment that I am right, and French people are wrong (foudebassan :D). What would I do instead? Well, one of the below:

Harry watched with interest as Malfoy’s face flushed pink. He wondered where he could buy his own vibrating broomstick.

Harry watched with interest as Malfoy’s face flushed pink; he wondered where he could buy his own vibrating broomstick.

Harry watched with interest as Malfoy’s face flushed pink, and he wondered where he could buy his own vibrating broomstick.

Now, comma splicing is pretty common. I see it in a LOT of fics, even fics written by people with a better grasp on punctuation than I possess, so I think it’s swings and roundabouts when it comes down to the rights and the wrongs of it. On a personal note, I ignore the odd comma splice when I’m validating a fic. The only time it becomes a problem (to me) is when a fic is loaded with them. I can recall a fest fic from earlier this year that had, proportionately, a high number of comma splices per chapter. I found it difficult to read, but fandom at large recced the fic to the high heavens as being a brilliant piece of work, so who am I to judge?

Comma splices are like that single dark hair that grows next to your nipple: ugly, irritating, and painlessly plucked. To paraphrase Lynne Truss, she said that if you’re famous you can get away with comma splices, but if you’re not, you can’t. Here endeth the interlude on comma splices.

 

Commas used with clauses (parts of a sentence).

When Draco woke up, Harry was busy wanking.

Without getting all jargonistic on you, there are two types of clauses in the example:

The example above starts with a subordinate clause (‘When Draco woke up’) and ends with a main clause (‘Harry was busy wanking’). Draco’s wakefulness is incidental to Harry’s wanking. If you don’t know which part of your sentence is the main or subordinate clause, you can try switching them around:

Harry was busy wanking when Draco woke up.

You’ll notice that, in this case, when the main clause goes first we don’t need a comma at all. But if you put the incidental detail (subordinate clause) first, you’ll need to add a comma before your main clause.

There are times when you will need a comma after a main clause which starts a sentence:

Draco looked at Harry, undressing him with his eyes.

Without the comma after ‘Harry’, the sentence would suggest that Harry rather than Draco was doing the visual undressing. So this is the sort of situation in which you would need a comma after the main clause.

Just to be confusing, it’s possible to have more than one main clause in a sentence:

The Gryffindors laughed and cheered and whistled when they found out that Malfoy was the bottom.

‘Laughed’, ‘cheered’, and ‘whistled’ are all main clauses and therefore of equal weight. You don’t need a comma between them, but you can use one if you want to emphasise each clause:

The Gryffindors laughed, and cheered, and whistled, when they found out that Malfoy was the bottom.

Whether you choose to put commas in or not depends on how much attention you want to draw to the laughing and cheering and whistling.

When it comes to commas and clauses, if in doubt, put a comma in (and you won’t hear me say that very often).

 

Commas used to balance the parts of a sentence.

The more Harry sucked, the more Draco loved him.

In this example, the comma is used to balance out two related themes. The only time you wouldn’t use a balancing comma in a situation like this is if there was an additional section to the sentence that required a comma to join the two pieces together; if you used two commas that would be overdoing it.

Draco was testing Harry’s oral skills, and so far so good.

‘So far, so good’ on its own would require a balancing comma, but in the example above the comma is used to emphasise the pause between the two clauses instead.

In some very rare cases, you will find two balanced sentences presented together, and when this happens, the balancing commas are used, and the joining comma is replaced by a semicolon, like this:

Those who can, swallow; those who can’t, spit.

 

Commas used to replace missing words.

In a similar way to how apostrophes are used to replace missing letters in a word (‘have not’ becomes ‘haven’t’), commas are used to replace whole words that are left out of sentences.

Harry wore black underpants; Draco, silver.

The comma between ‘Draco’ and ‘silver’ replaces the word ‘wore’. Without that comma to tell the reader that a word is missing, everyone would be left asking themselves the question, ‘Draco silver’ what? Is that like Long John Silver?

Just to reinforce the message, I’ll give you another example:

Draco’s underpants were silk; Harry’s, rubber.

The comma between ‘Harry’s’ and ‘rubber’ replaces the word ‘were’. Easy, right? Right.

 

Commas used to offset interjections.

“Fucking hell, did you see the size of Potter’s todger, Draco? I bet the filthy half-giant’s looks like a baby Flobberworm in comparison.”

“Thank you, Pansy. Yes, I have seen it; close up, mind you. And I’ll only give you one warning to keep your slutty hands to yourself.”

In this section of dialogue, the interjections are ‘fucking hell’ and ‘thank you’, but there’s a huge list of words that could also be an interjection. Basically, it can be any word that conveys emotion, and that is not necessary to the sentence. If I take off the first interjection, the sentence becomes:

“Did you see the size of Potter’s todger, Draco?”

It still makes sense, but it doesn’t pack the same punch as the version with the swearword, right? Similarly with the second sentence, without the ‘thank you’, you don’t get quite the same level of implied sarcasm and/or irritation.

So, why do we need a comma after it? Try saying the complete sentence out loud if you’re not sure. The comma represents the little pause we take after saying the naughty word. Why do we pause when we say it? Because it emphasises the interjection, that’s why. If you’re going to say something naughty or loaded with emotion, you want to give it the maximum emphasis.

 

Commas used to offset dialogue.

Looking across at Harry, Draco said, “Unless you’ve got extendible arms there’s no way you can get my trousers undone from all the way over there.” He parted his robes to draw attention to his tumescent truncheon of love. “It’s all yours,” he said huskily.

Speaking as a validator, this is the area where I see the most common misuse of commas, so pay attention!

Looking at the quote above, there are two specific commas I want to draw your attention to:

In example 1, the comma after ‘said’ prepares us for the opening of the speech marks that follows immediately after. The comma acts as a pause, both for a natural break and to draw attention to the fact that the text is changing from narrative to dialogue. The most common error with this comma is that it’s omitted altogether; the second most common error is that it’s replaced by a full stop, which throws the reader off because it makes them pause too long before the dialogue starts. Anyway, it’s just wrong!

Usage of this comma is starting to slip, though. More and more you will see a colon preceding the opening of speech marks, and sometimes there’s no punctuation at all. But the standard for dialogue appearing in the mid-flow of a sentence is to precede it with a comma.

The biggest biggest BIGGEST comma error I see is the comma shown in example 2. People get confused here, because the words inside the speech marks are a complete sentence. When the speech marks close, Draco has finished speaking, so LOTS of people put a full stop here instead of a comma. WRONG!!! It helps to look at more than the dialogue, because tacked onto the end of Draco’s speech are a few words that describe how he was speaking:

“It’s all yours,” he said huskily.

Those words together are a sentence, so the full stop will always come after ‘huskily’. Otherwise you would have:

“It’s all yours.” He said huskily.

Which is just wrong. They are not two sentences.

The rule only changes if the dialogue ends with an exclamation mark or a question mark:

“It’s all yours!” he exclaimed.

If your dialogue ends in an exclamation mark or a question mark, you don’t need a comma at all.

So remember – if the flow of your sentence carries on past the last word of the dialogue use a comma and not a full stop, even if the dialogue is complete.

 

Commas used to bracket (parenthesise) part of a sentence.

Harry, whose penis was quite obviously shorter than Draco’s, covered his naked crotch with a towel to hide his humiliation.

In this example, part of the sentence (‘whose penis was quite obviously shorter than Draco’s’) is bracketed by a comma at each end. We do this because the piece of bracketed information isn’t necessary to the sentence. It’s additional information. It explains why Harry is humiliated (because he doesn’t want Draco to know how small his diddler is), but it isn’t critical to the sentence overall. You could quite happily omit the section and the sentence would still be correct:

Harry covered his naked crotch with a towel to hide his humiliation.

Another very common comma error I see is people opening the bracketing commas but never closing them, so the reader is left hanging in mid-air, looking for closure, like this:

On the other hand, Draco, whose penis was affectionately nicknamed ‘the ankle-spanker’ walked around starkers so everyone could see that blond hair was not the only benefit of the Malfoy genetic legacy.

Cruel, right? Your brain is looking for that critical pause after ‘spanker’, but it never comes, and by the time you get to the end of the sentence you’re breathless and frustrated (and not just because someone finally deigned to give Draco the whopper instead of Harry. *shifty eyes*).

Again, just to drive the point home (neat use of bracketing here …), you can take out the additional information section and leave the sentence whole:

On the other hand, Draco walked around starkers so everyone could see that blond hair was not the only benefit of the Malfoy genetic legacy.

But Cal! I hear you cry. There’s another bracketed section in that sentence! Yes, my clever darlings, you are quite correct. Bracketed, or ‘non-critical’, sections do not have to be placed in the middle of a sentence; they can just as easily be at the start or at the end. If that’s the case you can only use one bracketing comma because the other comma will be overridden by either a capital letter or a full stop, like this:

On the other hand, without that opening section, the sentence remains complete and makes perfect sense.

Draco walked around starkers so everyone could see that blond hair was not the only benefit of the Malfoy genetic legacy.

Just to confuse matters, there are times when you have to think carefully before you bracket a section of information. Sometimes the omission, or addition, of bracketing commas changes the meaning of a sentence. Read the two examples below:

Example 1 implies that some women at the party came upon Harry and Draco going at it like the clappers, whilst example 2 implies that all the women at the party got an eyeful. So you need to think about which is the correct meaning for your story and use your commas accordingly.

In some style guides, you will be encouraged to abandon bracketing commas altogether. This is because as time passes, we move towards a sparser usage of them overall. I wonder how long it will be until the comma dies out altogether?

On the subject of abandoning bracketing commas, there is one place where you should:

Famous gay wizard, Draco Malfoy, has been recognised as having the biggest cock in Britain, says the Daily Prophet.

Applying the rule I talked about above, if I remove the bracketed information the sentence will read:

Famous gay wizard has been recognised as having the biggest cock in Britain, says the Daily Prophet.

And to a point that is true. It just doesn’t satisfy our need for defining information, which in this case is the name of Mr Donkey Dick himself. You need the name; it is a critical part of the sentence. Therefore you do not need to bracket it with commas:

Famous gay wizard Draco Malfoy has been recognised as having the biggest cock in Britain, says the Daily Prophet.

Wow. Long section. I bet you’re glad it’s over.

 

Commas after bracketed (parenthesised) text.

Making his choice quickly between a blow job and a rim job (and what a win-win situation that was), Harry got on his hands and knees and waggled his bum in Draco’s face.

This is one of those commas I always get wrong. I never know whether it goes before or after the brackets, inside or outside, or a combination of all of the above. So now I know. It always goes after the bracketed text. Not before, not inside: a single comma after the closed bracket.

Cool.

 

Commas used in dates and numbers.

Okay, so you won’t use this one much in fics, but if we’re going to cover this comma business properly, I can’t leave it out. This is another comma use that is fading into obsolescence, and different sources will tell you different things. It’s a case of deciding what suits your style and sticking to the same method of presenting dates and numbers. Both the examples below are okay:

On 23rd March, 2000, Draco announced that it was his and Harry’s one month shaggiversary.

On 23rd March 2000, Draco announced that it was his and Harry’s one month shaggiversary.

However, if you switch the day and month around, you DO need to use a comma to create a pause between the adjacent numbers, like this:

On March 23rd, 2000, Draco announced that it was his and Harry’s one month shaggiversary.

Incidentally, it makes no difference whether you have th, nd, rd, etc. after the day number or not. Even if you only use the numeral, you still apply the same rules for commas as described here.

Moving on to numbers, the rules are pretty straightforward too.

Harry asked Draco how many silver underpants he had, and Draco thought it was approximately 13,452 pairs.

I personally find the number a lot easier to read with the comma in place than without it. What do you think?:

Harry asked Draco how many silver underpants he had, and Draco thought it was approximately 13452 pairs.

Some guides advocate no comma, but a space instead – 13 452 – and once again, the choice is yours. The rule for where the gap or comma goes remains the same, though: start from the right and divide the whole number into groups of three, separating each group off with your comma or space (13,045, 623,899).

How many digits does a number need before you start inserting commas or gaps? Some people start from 4 digits (1,250), other people start from 5 digits (11,250). It’s your choice.

The only time you don’t use this rule is for numbers following a decimal point:

Draco’s erect penis measured exactly 26.4345921cms. Harry knew; he had measured it lots of times. Just to check…

Ta daaaa! Numbers and commas done!

 

Taking the bull by the horns – comma rules versus natural rhythm.

I want to draw your attention to a debate that won’t go away, and that debate is what you are supposed to do when a rule tells you to put a comma in one place, but your common sense tells you to put it somewhere else. Look at this example:

Draco loved his ginger root butt plug and whenever he could get away with it he’d slip it inside and savour the red hot tingling sensation.

The strict comma rule for this sentence would be to use bracketing commas, like this:

Draco loved his ginger root butt plug and, whenever he could get away with it, he’d slip it inside and savour the red hot tingling sensation.

If you remember, the commas bracket a section of text that can be removed, leaving a complete sentence behind.

The thing is, a lot of people reading the unpunctuated version wouldn’t naturally pause after ‘and’ – they’d pause after ‘plug’, and therein lies our problem. Only the very oldest manuals will tell you to put a comma before and after ‘and’; modern manuals will disagree. So what do you do? Well, my new friend George Davidson says:

"If you have to choose between structure and rhythm, a rhythm-based punctuation is probably the better option because it reflects natural speech … If you do adopt the rhythm-based approach to punctuation, be prepared for other people to disagree with your decision (perhaps quite strongly), but don’t let them persuade you that you are wrong."

Davidson, 2005.

What this means is that if you want to punctuate the sentence according to your speech pattern, you can:

Draco loved his ginger root butt plug, and whenever he could get away with it, he’d slip it inside and savour the red hot tingling sensation.

So there you go. The man himself says you can throw his rule book out of the window, but if you’re going to do it, be prepared to fight your ground.

 

Finally – the conclusion.

You’re probably wishing I’d got to this part several thousand words ago, but brevity’s never been one of my strong points, and where there’s a job to do I like to do it well (note no balancing comma!)

The most important point to reiterate, many times if necessary, is that using commas requires you to use your common sense. Rules are all well and good for people for people who can’t think out of the box, but there are times when the rules will fail you, or show themselves to be absolute arses. So think about it first. How many commas do you need? If you look at your computer screen and you can see little comma-shaped flecks everywhere, chances are you’re going overboard. Trim them back! Save your reader! Have you used other forms of punctuation that make your comma rule seem silly? If so, dump the comma! Be confident. Read your work to yourself to check the rhythm, and punctuate to suit.

Now, 5,000 words on the comma is too much for anyone, so I’m calling it a day. If you have spotted any errors or omissions, please do tell me. I hope this has been as helpful for you as it has for me. Now scatter, writers. Scatter!

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