Thursday, September 9, 2010

Self-Editing Tips — Comma Review Part 1

Not sure how time gets away from me so quickly. However, I'm determined to get on track with this blog, so here's a quick review of commas. Well at least some of the comma rules. There are too many to get to all of them in one post.

Today we'll cover the comma with conjunctions and the series comma.


The first comma we'll discuss is the comma 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.

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.

Examples:
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 racecar 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 racecar spun out and hit the wall.

Now let's look at the series or serial comma. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, The series comma is the one before the conjunction in a series of words, phrases, or independent clauses. It helps keep the meaning clear to the reader, in my opinion. So I use it and recommend to my clients that they use it as well.


For example:
Roger used a hammer, nails, and glue to repair the cabin’s window.
You may write an essay, read a book, or do your homework in this study hall.
Mary went to the store, Carol walked around the track, and Sharon stopped in for coffee.


However, if a conjunction is used between each of the elements in a series, no comma is needed.

For example:
Roger used a hammer and nails and glue to repair the cabin’s window.
You may write an essay or read a book or do your homework in this study hall.
This morning Mary went to the store and Carol walked around the track and Sharon stopped in for coffee.


While most book publishers follow the Chicago Manual of Style and use the serial comma, I know of several who don’t. One of the trends in grammar today is to use fewer commas, and this is one area some choose to delete.


One final note from the newly released 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style:

Note that the phrase as well as is not equivalent to and.


The team fielded one Mazda, two Corvettes, and three Bugattis, as well as a battered Plymouth Belvedere.
not
The team fielded one Mazda, two Corvettes, three Bugattis, as well as a battered Plymouth Belvedere.


Next week we'll talk about more uses of the comma.

2 comments:

Paula Davis said...

I have always thought of the series comma as a "substitute" of sorts for the conjunction. That would mean that the comma before a conjunction would be omitted, as in, "Roger used a hammer, nails and glue to repair the cabin’s window." Would you consider that an acceptable usage?

Margie Vawter said...

The comma can't substitute for the conjunction in a series like this. You can decide not to use it, as long as it's consistently done. The guidelines I'm giving here are for book publishing, not essays or articles. :) I'll cover the differences in another post.

However, when you have a series of adjectives, even just two, the comma can and should substitute for the "and." For example, "the big, tall man." If "and" can be logically put between the adjectives, use a comma.

Hope that helps! Great question, Paula.