Today is the last day of MARCH BOOK MADNESS! (Full explanation and schedule here.) I can’t believe it’s the end of the month already. I hope you’ve learned as much as I have from this talented group of authors. (Huge thank you to all of them for sharing their knowledge with us!!!!!) If you’ve missed any posts, make sure to catch up (list below).
Our last author is my friend, Julie L. Casey, author of the Teenage Survivalist series. Because Julie writes dystopian, end-of-civilization stuff like I do, she and I get along great. :) In fact, if you’re interested, she posts lots of basic survival tips on Pinterest and her other social sites. Make sure to check out her books and her blog (below her bio). Not only is she talented and knowledgeable, she’s also super sweet and nice. Today she’s talking about my arch nemesis: the comma.
Here she is:
Julie L. Casey: The Writer’s Greatest Punctuation Nemesis: The Dreaded Comma (it’s really not that bad)
If you ask writers what their greatest punctuation problem is, they’ll likely say the comma, or more precisely, comma use.
What is it about this seemingly innocuous little eyelash of a mark that makes people leery?
There are dozens of rules and exceptions that govern the use of commas. I believe it is the rules themselves that confuse people to the point of being afraid of using or misusing them.
But are the rules really so terrible?
Actually, the rules are simple, but the vocabulary used to describe the rules is what is scary. After all, who but an English teacher would remember the difference between an independent, introductory, or nonessential clause? Or even a clause, for that matter (no, it’s not the man in the red suit with a long white beard).
The rules themselves make understanding comma use more difficult.
I suggest writers forget about the rules of comma use.
So what should a writer do instead?
Use the Force (or at least your intuition)
The first thing to remember (and maybe the only thing) is that your job as a writer is to make your reader understand what you mean without making them work to figure it out.
Consider these two sentences:
- The teacher lectured to the students who were sitting at their desks.
- The teacher lectured to the students, who were sitting at their desks.
In the first sentence, the reader may stop to wonder why the teacher is only lecturing to the students who were sitting at their desks. Now, you may well mean that the teacher is lecturing only to the students at their desks, but you would likely have to explain what the other students are doing and why they aren’t included in the lecture (maybe they’re doing a lab at the back of the room, for instance). The comma in the second sentence makes it clear that the teacher is lecturing the students, all of whom are sitting at their desks.
Here’s another example:
- The mother took the toy making her toddler cry.
- The mother took the toy, making her toddler cry.
The first sentence says that the toy was making the toddler cry, so the mother took it. In the second sentence, the comma makes it clear that the mother made her toddler cry by taking away the toy.
In these two examples, it doesn’t matter in the least to know whether you have an essential or nonessential clause; all that matters is that you know whether you need the comma or not so that the reader understands instantly what you mean.
You know this intuitively if you pay a little attention to what you write. Often, you don’t notice it until you are in the editing phase and you must pause when rereading the sentence to figure out what you meant. That’s your cue to think about whether or not a comma would help the reader understand your intent.
Think of Commas as Tools
You’ve probably seen some of the funny Internet memes declaring that commas save lives. I love those clever memes!
I love them not only because they are hilarious (at least to a grammar nerd like me), but also because they teach intuitive comma use without ever mentioning the rules.
Commas are tools, and like any tool, if used correctly, will make your life (or at least your writing) easier. If a tool is too complicated to use correctly, then it isn’t much good, is it?
For more intuitive grammar tips, visit http://www.julielcasey.com/blog
REBECCA’S THOUGHTS: Just when I think I’ve mastered the comma, I find a new way I’m using it wrong! So thank you for sharing this, Julie. It really does help me to think of commas logically because I’m not a grammar nerd so I get lost in all the dependent, non-essential verbage. I swear I spend more time googling grammar rules than actual plot stuff, so obviously I have a lot to learn. :) Authors like myself appreciate grammar gurus like you who can simplify it in a way that makes sense, so again, thanks! I can remember this.
How about you? Love or hate commas? Any easy tips you’ve learned to remember the rules? Comment here.
Julie L. Casey lives in a rural area near St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband, Jonn Casey, a science teacher, and their three youngest sons. After teaching preschool for fifteen years, she has been homeschooling her four sons for ten years. Julie has bachelor of science degrees in education and computer programming and has written four books. She enjoys historical reenacting, wildlife rehabilitation, teaching her children, and writing books that capture the imaginations of young people. She is a member of the Missouri Writers Guild and the St. Joseph Writers Guild.
OTHER MARCH BOOK MADNESS POSTS:
2016 MARCH BOOK MADNESS SCHEDULE :
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- Tue, Mar 1: Playing Fair: Good Guys vs. Bad Guys by Rebecca Belliston
- Wed, Mar 2: How to Self-Edit Your Work by J.J. Lyon
- Thu, Mar 3: 6 Ways to Choose Great Character Names by A.L. Sowards
- Tue, Mar 8: How to Energize Your Writing by Charissa Stastny
- Wed, Mar 9: 10 Things Your Freelance Editor Wishes You Knew by Sarah Belliston
- Thu, Mar 10: Creativity: A Process, Not a Product by Teresa Hirst
- Tue, Mar 15: 6 Tips to Avoid Author Burnout by Danyelle Ferguson
- Thu, Mar 17, How Book Clubs Can Help Authors by Charity Bradford
- Tue, Mar 22, The Writing Formula: Success in Any Genre by Jen Johnson
- Wed, Mar 23, Rejection & a Broken Muse by Ranee` S. Clark
- Thu, Mar 24, Writing the Movie in Your Head by Gerald N. Lund
- Tue, Mar 29, Writing vs. Family: How to Choose Which to Focus on by Chantele Sedgwick
- Wed, Mar 30, Intuitive Grammar: The Comma Dilemma by Julie L. Casey
PREVIOUS MARCH BOOK MADNESS YEARS:
- WHERE TO START: Genre | Plot | Setting | Finding Time to Write
- EDITING: Beats | Beta Readers | Chapters | Critique Groups
- CHARACTERS: Accents | Flaws | Moral Dilemmas|Motivation|Non-verbal Cues
- PUBLISHING: Querying | Marketing | Designing