Commas are not Raindrops
by J. E. Pinto
Hi campbellsworld visitors and writerly people everywhere.
This afternoon in the Author’s Corner author Jo E. Pinto who is also a Proofreader, has dropped by to set us straight on commas and how to properly use them.
As I write this, I wonder how many mistakes Jo will find in my greeting.
Commas and their proper usages is something I struggle with mightily, and I’m betting you do as well. So, without further delay here’s Jo and her lesson for today.
To support my writing habit, I make my living as a freelance proofreader. I spend my days hunting down misspelled words, missing apostrophes, and misplaced commas lurking in manuscripts whose authors are sure they have polished them to perfection. Believe me, I always ask someone else to check my writing for errors before I submit it anywhere as well. Mistakes are easy to overlook.
Of all the punctuation marks, the humble comma is by far the most misunderstood and misused, and no wonder. There are many basic rules of comma usage taught in the modern classroom, and even experts don’t always agree on their implementation. So these days, the comma placement I see in my work varies as widely as the weather across the United States. Sometimes commas are as sparse as raindrops on the deserts of New Mexico; sometimes they’re clustered as thick as snowflakes on New England rooftops. I decided to put together this list of tips to help my fellow writers cope with commas.
Use a comma to separate the items when there are three or more in a list.
“He hesitated, then stood up, hitched his thumbs in his belt loops, and swaggered off toward a group of chicks without saying another word.”
Sometimes the comma is left out before the word “and” that precedes the last item in the list. This is often seen in newspapers, but it isn’t grammatically correct.
Use a comma with a connecting word, called a conjunction, to join two sentences together.
“The lawn was thick and green, and there were a couple of giant trees in the yard that looked like they’d been standing since the beginning of time.”
Think of a comma like a staple fastening the two sentences together; the sentences would fall apart without the comma. The connection words are and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so. When you write these words, stop and consider whether you are connecting two sentences. If you are, use a comma.
Use a comma to set off introductory parts of a sentence that are not essential to keep the sentence complete.
“After a lot of struggling and swearing, we got Tim stretched out on the back seat of the old rust-bucket with his head in my lap.”
The comma needs to appear because “We got Tim stretched out on the back seat of the old rust-bucket with his head in my lap” is a complete sentence. So “After a lot of struggling and swearing” is nonessential introductory material that must be set off by itself.
Use commas to set off added information in the middle of a sentence.
“The memory of the gun in my hand and the fat man quivering on the asphalt poured over me, shaking me up since the moment had passed, and I felt beads of sweat popping out on my forehead.”
Because “shaking me up since the moment had passed” is not needed to complete the sentence or clarify meaning, it must be set off by commas as extra information. The memory of the gun in my hand and the fat man quivering on the asphalt poured over me, and I felt beads of sweat popping out on my forehead” would make a complete sentence without the added information.
Use commas to separate adjectives.
An easy way to know when to add commas is to try inserting “and” between the adjectives. If your sentence still makes sense when the word “and” is inserted between the adjectives, the commas are necessary.
Judge Mills in “The Bright Side of Darkness” lives in a comfortable, spacious home.
If you insert the word “and” between “comfortable” and “spacious,” the sentence still makes sense. Use the comma.
Alice’s neighbor in “The Bright Side of Darkness” is a pudgy little lady with a frizzy blond perm that shows gray roots.
If you insert the word “and” between “pudgy” and “little,” the sentence doesn’t make sense. Scratch the comma.
Use a comma or commas to separate quoted words from the part of the sentence that introduces them.
“Aw, lay off, Tim,” I said.
“Well, Emily, if Walter and I choose to open our home, I guess that makes it our business,” Alice said coolly.
“If you truly plan to clean up your act, Tim, you better do it now,” Walter said. “You were under age when you robbed the liquor store, which is the only reason I could go to bat for you. Stay out of the adult courts. You won’t find much compassion there for a guy with a rap sheet like yours.”
“As for you, David,” he said over his shoulder, “you need to get it through your thick head that you aren’t better than other people because you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”
Use commas to set dates apart from the sentences in which they appear.
“August 27, 1986, is slipping by the same as every other hot, heavy day, and I’m the only one in the world who knows that nothing will ever be all right again.”
Use a comma to set off someone’s name or a phrase substituted for a name in a sentence. If the name appears in the middle of a sentence, commas must come before and after the name.
She tried to hug me right away, but I put up a hand to stop her. “I ain’t much into the hug thing, Mrs. Mills.”
“The only reason it wasn’t you, little maggot, is that you aren’t old enough to drive.”
Use commas to separate the name of a state after a city and the name of a country after a state.
The Bright Side of Darkness” takes place in a fictitious town called Bertha City, Texas, U.S.A.
In conclusion, this overview has summarized most of the basic rules of comma use for informal writing. Commas, while important and versatile, won’t serve you well if they’re sprinkled randomly like raindrops throughout your work. When put in their proper places, they clarify your sentences and add structure to your writing. If used haphazardly, they create as much confusion as they clear up. Building comma-consciousness into your writing is definitely worth the effort.
(Examples are taken from Chapters 1, 9, 4, 7, 11, 13, and the Prologue of my novel, “The Bright Side of Darkness.”)
MORE ABOUT JO AND HER WORK…
J. E. Pinto is a magnet for underdogs! Early in her married life, her home became a hangout for troubled neighborhood kids. This experience lit the flame for her first novel, The Bright Side of Darkness.
Pinto’s Spanish-American roots grow deep in the Rocky Mountains, dating back six generations. J. E. Pinto lives with her family in Colorado where she works as a writer and proofreads textbooks and audio books. One of her favorite pastimes is taking a nature walk with her service dog.
The Bright Side of Darkness won a first place Indie Book Award for “First Novel over Eighty Thousand Words,” as well as First Place for “Inspirational Fiction.” The novel also won several awards from the Colorado Independent Publishers Association: First Place for “Inspirational Fiction,” Second Place for “Audio Book,” and First Place for “Literary and Contemporary Fiction.
What is a family? Rick Myers is a despondent seventeen-year-old who just lost his parents in a car wreck. His family is now the four teenage buddies he’s grown up with in a run-down apartment building. Fast with their fists, flip with their mouths, and loyal to a fault, “the crew” is all he has.
At least he thinks so until he meets Daisy, an intelligent, independent, self-assured blind girl. Her guts in a world where she’s often painfully vulnerable intrigue Rick, and her hopeful outlook inspires him to begin believing in himself.
But when the dark side of Daisy’s past catches up with her, tragedy scatters the crew and severely tests Rick’s resolve to build his promising future. Fortunately, his life is changed by a couple with a pay-it-forward attitude, forged out of their personal struggle with grief and loss. Their support makes all the difference to Rick and eventually to the ones he holds most dear as they face their own challenges.
“The Bright Side of Darkness” is a story of redemption and the ultimate victory that comes from the determination of the human spirit
If you would like to contact Author Jo E Pinto, please feel free to e-mail:
To see her guest blog posts, please check out: https://blindmotherhood.com/.
Jo can also be found at: Looking On the Bright Side
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