Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Commas, eegads!

I’m not much of a grammar buff. In fact, I hated, hated, hated diagramming sentences in school. *insert shudder* In fact, despite the A’s I got from a talent for guessing correct answers, I never knew with certainty what a direct object, indirect object, etc. was, until I studied German.

(Yep, I would actually translate my sentences into German to find the direct object for English class. Y’all already know I’m weird, so I’ll just let it all hang out here. :-) )

Commas are a bit of a pet peeve of mine. If you have a sit in the grammar section of the bookstore, it’s fun to look through the books on comma rules. The ’experts’ will tell you there are anywhere between two to forty-two rules about the use of the comma. Me? I side with the two-rule camp.

Commas are something I never get right on the first run-through. In fact, I have to go through my whole manuscript at the end, just to take out a bunch of commas. (And insert a few, sadly.)

I primarily write for online readers. An editor at Ellora’s Cave once confirmed what I had suspected to be true for a long time: online reading begs the use of less commas than paper reading. She didn’t expand on that, but I remember wanting to record her words and send them to one of my editors.

I hate reading stories that feel like an eighth grade English teacher punctuated them. Commas are definitely a rhythm thing, and liberal use of the comma can cause stilted flow. You know I’m obsessed with rhythm.

The Nora uses lots of commas, even using a comma in place of the word ’and.’ Imitators often don’t realize that she varies her rhythm: one heavily-comma’ed sentence followed by a quicker, flowing one.

I’m absolutely in love with Marcus Sakey’s prose. You know I’m crazy about his book, The Blade Itself. Part of the reason is that he uses less commas per capita than any author I know. And it works, it works very well.

If you have a stroll through each section, you’ll find that literary prose often tends toward more commas, while thrillers tend toward less commas. (Generally.) Romance can fall in between, and speculative fiction is a world of its own that doesn’t seem to follow the trends of the rest of the world. (Especially concerning point of view.)

So what kind of rhythm do you prefer with your commas?

10 bonus scribbles:

Bernita 7/04/2007 08:08:00 AM  

I belong to the 16 rule school.
I probably use too many.

Rhonda Stapleton 7/04/2007 09:58:00 AM  

LOL--I probably am more uptight about commas than I should be, given that fiction has more relaxed rules. I can't help it, though!!! It's been drilled into my head! hahaha

Liz Wolfe 7/04/2007 10:03:00 AM  

ACK! I'm comma impaired. My editor always puts in about 10,000 commas. Never, ever takes one out. I prefer fewer commas when I read. Maybe because I read a lot of thrillers.
Commas seem to be one of those things that doesn't have hard and fast rules. At least the grammar check in word doesn't seem to mind how few I use.

SQT 7/04/2007 04:43:00 PM  

Oh man, the grammar thing gets me too. I got A's mostly by guesswork as well and trying to figure out my dangling participles literally gives me hives. Commas really are the least of my problems.

Karen Olson 7/04/2007 06:06:00 PM  

"An editor at Ellora’s Cave once confirmed what I had suspected to be true for a long time: online reading begs the use of less commas than paper reading."

I don't get this. Online reading means that writers can be grammatically incorrect?

As a writer and a copy editor and an English major, commas have their place and there are rules. The rules should be followed. It's really quite simple.

spyscribbler 7/04/2007 08:11:00 PM  

LOL, Karen. But not every "rule" is hard and fast or agreed on by all the rule-setters, and one can write their sentences in a way to avoid needing them.

Each style guide often disagrees, too. Take the serial comma: who you're writing for depends on whether you use it or not.

Copyeditor, wow. You have my sincere admiration, for sure!

Karen Olson 7/04/2007 08:47:00 PM  

If someone were to avoid using commas in his/her writing, we'd seen some pretty short sentences! And yes, books and magazines use the serial comma, newspapers do not. But all the other comma rules do apply in all cases.

I can imagine how you feel about semi-colons :)

I was less impressed with Sakey's writing than you are. And it had nothing to do with how many commas he used.

spyscribbler 7/04/2007 09:24:00 PM  

Semi-colons? I love them way too much! If I had my druthers, I'd have ten per page! I do manage to pare most of them out; my editor takes care of the others. ;-)

Same goes with the em-dash, LOL.

alternatefish 7/05/2007 09:12:00 PM  

When I was in my midteens both my mother and an English teacher told me that really my only grammatical fault was my constant use of the "evil comma splice." The teacher had pretty little lightning-bolt diagrams; my mother just told me to stop putting in a comma whenever I took a breath. Her advice worked better, but I am now very self-conscious about commas and tend to overcorrect.

And I too adore semicolons, tho many people misuse them. I once had a professor flatly say, "don't any of you use semicolons in your papers, nobody knows how to use them." I did anyway. The day I don't know how to place a semicolon, I stop writing.

(now watch, someone's going to dispute that semicolon in the first paragraph)

Anissa 7/07/2007 11:08:00 AM  

I tend to use fewer commas than probably necessary. I'm like you, the flow of the sentence sometimes feels off with the commas where they "should" be. ;)

And em-dashes. Ah...those em-dashes. :)