FOR WRITERS: Comma Sense

FOR WRITERS: Comma Sense

I like commas. I detest semi-colons – I don’t think they belong in a story. And I gave up quotation marks long ago. I found I didn’t need them, they were fly-specks on the page.

E. L. Doctorow

Did you know that of the 1,146 pages comprising the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, 325 pages are dedicated to the proper usage of commas?

Okay, I pulled that fact out of thin air. But I bet many of you (myself included) would not be surprised if this was true. Out of all the elements of composition and grammar, the application of commas is simultaneously the most contested and the least important aspect of writing.

One of my most embarrassing editing experiences involves commas, a well-respected and uniquely talented writer of cosmic horror, and my personal obstinance. Way, way back in the early days of Apex Magazine, I approached this writer for a reprint. (She’ll remain anonymous because I don’t want anyone sending her this essay and reminding her of my mistakes.) Having her name in the zine would be a Big Deal. A stamp of quality and a statement of the type of content we wanted.

The query went well. She was gracious and obliged me with a fantastic story to reprint. I immediately accepted it and returned it to her with a couple of minor punctuation edits. 

Big mistake.

She castigated me via email. In terms of anger and vitriol, it was epic. To this day I turn to it when I need inspiration for self-righteous anger.

Like any good castigation, I was hurt terribly by her response. My edits consisted of what I considered easy-to-fix comma typos. I thought I was doing her a favor by pointing out the egregious mistakes that every reader was sure to spot, make note of, and file as a formal complaint to their favorite social media feed. An editor’s number one job is to make the writer look good, right?

When I throw back the curtain of time and view this incident from a distance of ten years, I recognize the error of editorial hubris. Perhaps it can be argued that her reaction was a bit harsh, but in truth, I see what fueled her frustration with me. At the time, I did not know that reprinted works are often published “as is,” meaning that they’re basically a facsimile of the original publication. This means the reprint publisher will run the work with a simple end-of-story tag like “Presented as originally published in Storyzine Weekly (2009).” I also failed to understand that commas, really, aren’t important enough to piss off a writer who you respect and admire.

Perhaps if I had simply apologized for my error, the situation could have been salvaged. But I was a young firebrand at the time (now I’m simply incorrigible). I wrote a response to her remarks with a precise argument outlining the importance of clean copy and the reader’s perception of a publication based on the quality of its copy editing. She withdrew her reprint and asked that our correspondence end.

I still cringe at my brashness. And, sadly, I’ve never had the opportunity to publish her work.

It wasn’t until a conversation I had a year later with renowned fantasist and vagabond, Lavie Tidhar, that I had my comma awakening. Lavie and I have a friendship of brutal honesty nurtured by a decade of running insults and showmanship. I had submitted edits to a story of his that was to run in Apex Magazine. He responded by sending me another copy of his original unedited manuscript. I asked him what was up.

I’ll paraphrase and edit for profanity. Lavie said, “Sizemore, you have to stop with the heavy comma edits. It makes you come across as a hack.”

I requested that he please elaborate. I’m many things … but a hack?

“Writers use commas as stage direction. Every comma I use has a purpose, regardless of whether it is grammatically correct or not. Don’t f*ck with them.”

*

Because this essay is about grammar, exceptions must be pointed out. Unless you’re dealing with a writer who is known as a grammatical stylist, there are a few basic comma rules that must be followed:

Commas need to be used to set off dialog tags.

Commas should be used in a list. Whether you use an Oxford comma is up to you. 

Use commas in numbers, e.g., 1,342. And to separate dates.

After e.g. and i.e.

You need a comma to accompany a conjunction with independent clauses.

Use a comma between a city and state.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s it. 

Grammarians will argue that there are other instances where commas have to be used. Technically, they are probably correct. In those cases, I will highlight the comma and add a comment that according to the Chicago Manual of Style the comma should be deleted, removed, or moved and let the author decide if the comma stays or the comma goes.

*

Even though I practice a laissez-faire philosophy to commas, there is one type of comma malpractice that makes me die inside when a writer stets a correction.

Comma splices.

Groan.

A comma splice occurs when authors try to smash together two independent clauses with a comma and no coordinating conjunction. E.g., “Jason Sizemore is a skilled editor, his rules on editing supersedes all others.” The correct form is to replace the comma with a period in the sentence.

Writers tend to use this erroneous construction when they’re trying to build urgency in their prose. Or they want the reader to mentally be out of breath. Or they simply want to annoy their editor. Or maybe all three!

*

Remember that copy editors aren’t targeting your commas out of spite. Sometimes, we are trying to save the day. Otherwise, you might end up with this sentence that appeared in a New York Times TV listing for a Peter Ustinov documentary: “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” 

On the other side of the spectrum, not editing rogue commas can create a sticky political problem, such as the grammatically atrocious second amendment of the US Bill of Rights.

As a writer, you have control of your commas. But be careful how you wield them!

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