Monday, June 25, 2007

The Confusing Comma

I’ve decided to start my editing tips with punctuation, the comma specifically. And if you think I can cover everything you need to know about the comma in one post. . .think again! J When it comes to punctuation, the rules and the ever-present exceptions for the comma seem to be the most confusing.

Today I want to talk about the comma that that is used to separate two independent clauses when combined with a coordinating conjunction. A simple definition of an independent clause is a subject and verb combination that expresses a complete thought. In other words, it doesn’t make you want to ask a question in order to complete the thought. For example, She ran away is a complete thought as opposed to Though she ran away. . . . A coordinating conjunction joins similar sentence components. An easy way to remember which words are coordinating conjunctions is to remember fanboys: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (For those of you who are grammar “freaks” like me, fanboys is known as a mnemonic device J.)

According to the Chicago Manual of Style (the publishing industry’s style standard for books), a comma usually precedes the conjunction when two independent clauses are joined with one of the fanboys. The exception to the rule (and, yes, there are usually exceptions—that’s what makes English so interesting!): If the two independent sentences are short and closely related, you may omit the comma.

Mike will work the first shift, but Lucy will have to work the second shift.
Joe munched on a hamburger, and I indulged in a hot-fudge sundae.
The exception:
Timothy played the guitar and Betty sang.

The problem I see often is the use of the comma before any coordinating conjunction. For example: He was at least sixty years old, with lively blue eyes, and a leathery complexion that proved he’d spent many of his years outdoors. In this case the comma after eyes is incorrect as it is separating a compound object of the preposition with. This sentence should read: He was at least sixty years old, with lively blue eyes and a leathery complexion that proved he’d spent many of his years outdoors. Another example: The race car spun out, and hit the wall. In this case the comma is separating a simple compound verb: spun out and hit. Only two verbs. It doesn’t need the comma. This sentence should read: The race car spun out and hit the wall.

Okay, that’s enough on the comma for today. Please leave a comment, especially if you have a question. Next time we’ll talk about the “serial comma.” (And, no, it has nothing to do with serial killers—for those of us who read and write mystery, suspense, or thrillers.)


Donna J. Shepherd said...

I was just talking to an editor friend of mine last night about this. I'm comma crazy. lol! Thanks for this excellent explanation.

Donna (on the PEN list :)

CHickey said...

Great blog. Welcome to Bloggers world.