August 25, 2003

Don’t they drive you nuts?

You can visit all the rules of style you want, and you can read all the books and articles you want. You will still be confused.

You will see inconsistency. You will see experts who don’t agree with each other. And, you’ll pull out your hair. Unless you’re Michael, since my hair’s falling out all by itself. I think it’d do that even if I weren’t an editor hunting down errant commas.

Well, folks, here are some rules. A bare minimum. Internalize these and ignore everybody else.

(1) Never put a comma between a subject and a verb. It’s always wrong. The dog, barked. What is that? Idiocy. I’m sorry, but it is. Read it aloud, and pause at the comma. Don’t you feel stupid?

(2) If you want to separate a clause, put a comma on both sides of it. Otherwise, no commas at all. “The dog, who held a bone in his mouth, ran to the porch.” See how there’s a comma on both sides? That’s because you could skip that whole clause entirely and it’d still be a complete sentence. “The dog ran to the porch.”

If I delete the first comma, I have to delete the second one. You decide which looks best, two commas or none. But, one comma doesn’t work. Try deleting either one and reading the result aloud, remembering to pause at the comma. It’s a wreck, isn’t it? You don’t talk like that, so don’t write like that.

(3) “He saw the cat, the cat was on the couch.” This is not a good sentence. It’s two sentences. The one before the comma has subject object verb, and so does the one after the comma.

Run-ons like that can emphasize the run-on nature of a character’s words or thoughts, but use the device sparingly. It’s okay to break a rule, as long as you know what it is and why you’re breaking it.

But in the example above, it’d be best to make them two sentences. If you find you just can’t do it, consider a semicolon. Don’t believe anyone who says semicolons aren’t allowed in fiction. I wouldn’t use one in the sample sentence, but I’ve used them in other sentences I’ve written. Sparingly.

But for something as lame as a sentence about a cat on a couch, it’s best to follow the rules exactingly and make that two sentences. Do you really think your reader’s gonna pop off for a beer or a toilet break between them and lose his place? As long as they’re in the same paragraph, they’ll be read together.

(4) And finally, THE rule. It works for narrative and it works for dialogue. Read what you’ve written aloud. Wherever you would pause for breath, whack in a comma. Because, you have internalized the rules. You’ve been speaking English all your life. But as an aspiring writer, you’ve been so busy trying to learn “the rules” that you’ve forgotten the rule you’ve known all along. And you do know it!

If you’d like, you can look over some sentences in the preceding paragraphs. You’ll note some commas where they’re not strictly necessary. Often, it’s where I begin a sentence with a conjunction, also an alleged no-no. But that device can be used sparingly to emphasize a point. And when I do that, sometimes I whip in a comma for extra emphasis. A comma is a pause. That’s what you should note if you indulge in this exercise. I’m pausing for emphasis. Read my sentences aloud. Pause at every comma. The rhythm works. It’s how I talk, and you won’t be all freaked out and confused as you listen because I paused in funny places.

Speaking as an editor, I run into a lot of writers who have problems with commas. Heck, speaking as someone who likes to read books and newspapers and magazines, I see commas where they shouldn’t be, or missing commas where they should be. It’s because we’re trying to be too fancy, drifting dangerously far from the “write what you know” mantra because we think we’re stupid.

We’re not stupid. As Sean Connery noted in FINDING FORRESTER, critics spend a day destroying what they couldn’t create in a lifetime. That’s also what I think of people who want us to memorize hundreds of silly rules about commas. They’re pauses. Nothing more, nothing less. Pause where you want to pause, not where you think someone else thinks you’re supposed to pause.

Wanna know who’s the best at this whole comma business? Sports journalists. Some of them make up words, are given to hyperbole, and are guilty of many other sins. But they get their commas right. (Maybe they have good editors?) You can read what they wrote and dang near hear their voices. You know what they said and what they meant to say, and you can agree with them or be totally outraged by them.

And that is, after all, what writing is. Telepathy. I’m in Hangzhou and you are not, and you’re reading this hours or probably days after I wrote it, but you know what I’m thinking. Stray commas would be a barrier to that. Good writers don’t like barriers.

(I say “probably days” because you don’t know when I wrote what you read. Usually several days before I send it to you. Once in a while, a few weeks.)

Just remember that a comma is a pause, and pause wherever you think you should. Blow off the rules–there are too many and they just keep changing–and trust your gut. If you do that, I think you’ll find that when you seek out publication, and find yourself working with an editor, you’ll hear very little about your commas.

Michael LaRocca’s website at was
chosen by WRITER’S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best Websites For
Writers in 2001 and 2002. He published two novels in 2002 and has
two more scheduled for publication in 2004. He also works as an
editor for an e-publisher. He teaches English at a university in
Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, China, and publishes the free weekly
newsletter Mad About Books.