Tuesday, October 30, 2007

All About Commas

Thanks to Sean Ferrell for posting about this great resource on commas. Of particular note are the 10 Simple Rules for using commas. These rules were written with journalists in mind, but most are still fully applicable for novelists.

Things I learned:
- I wasn't aware of the "four words or more" part of rule #3.
- The "adjectives of equal rank" was an awesome clarifier with me in rule #5. Read the details on that rule for even better clarification -- the equal rank test that the professor suggests is wonderful. I had an intuitive understanding of this before, as most people probably do, but just relying on that was problematic when it came to looking closely at what were seemingly gray areas.
- Several aspects of rule #8 were a surprise to me, but they are not too relevant for most novels.
- Rule #10 was a surprise. I've seen that before, but had forgotten I could do that. I tend to just ignore that construction, a luxury not shared by journalists reporting on the verbatim speech of others. Interestingly, a very few exceptions to rule #10 exist, though they aren't mentioned on that site. For example: "Robert had had a chance to review the packet."
- Rule #9 actually is the only one that seems questionable to me when it comes to novelists. I know that journalists would write the following: "I live in Raleigh, NC, with my wife." Novelists, I've always though, should be writing: "I live in Raleigh, NC with my wife." Can anyone confirm that or tell me I'm wrong? I would like to know.

When I was in elementary and middle school, this sort of nit-picky punctuation seemed so boring to study. By high school, I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but everything was still so new that it was a real challenge to absorb it all -- and it still seemed quite dry. In college, I didn't study writing at all, unfortunately, so it's refreshing to see these grammatical rules again and realize that I'm now fascinated by them. Anything that helps make my prose more proper is of the highest order of interest these days!


Unknown said...

So I read your post before I read the 10 SIMPLE RULES page and therefore I hadn't seen what Rule #9 was. This backstory is only important in telling that I come to your example sentence with an open mind.

However, "I live in Raleigh, NC with my wife." struck me as awkward to read because I excepted NC to then be the subject of the clause following the comma.

Now you've got me thinking about it! But even when I say it aloud I put in an ever so slight pause before Raleigh and North Carolina. Very slight. Like a half beat.

I think that if the comma wasn't there people would simply assume that it had been forgotten not intentionally left out - but that's just me. :)

Christopher M. Park said...

I think you raise some very good points. I'm not sure where I picked up the idea that the second comma wouldn't be needed, but I certainly don't believe it's definitely correct. That's just what I'm trying to figure out, actually. You've got me thinking that the second comma is probably needed after all. Thanks for commenting!

Stephen Parrish said...

I don't think the second comma is needed. You would write "I live in Raleigh with my wife" using no commas; the only reason you insert a comma is to separate Raleigh from NC, not to separate the location from the following qualifier.

To tell you the truth, "I live in Raleigh NC with my wife" won't land you in jail either. The use of commas is a function of style as much as the rules of grammar. I listen to my ear first, the rules second.

Christopher M. Park said...

Sigh. Stephen, you make some good points, as well. Perhaps this particular usage is just one of those gray areas. I'll just have to see what seems more correct to me in usage, I guess. I prefer having a concrete rule when it comes to grammatical issues, though, because that's not something I personally intend to be very stylistically novel with.