The Comma Clause

Questions about commas outnumber all other Grammar Cop questions. Why is the comma so confusing? For one thing, usage and preferences vary. One editor may prefer all but the simplest clauses be offset by commas while another may be a comma minimalist. Author Steve Berry once told me he’s the self-proclaimed comma-kasee. He rarely uses a comma and sells a lot more books than I, so who am I to judge? 

Here are a few basic rules to help you. Keep in mind, however, no matter what you read or hear, your publisher has the final authority. Only debate a comma placement when it is a matter of changing the sentence’s meaning. Before you debate with an editor, be sure you have a clear understanding of clauses and sentence structure.

Comma Rules in a Nutshell:

An independent clause (Subject + Verb) doesn’t need a comma. A dependent clause does. 

Consider this paragraph:

My backpack weighs a ton. The straps, which bear the weight of six textbooks and a laptop, must be reinforced. I wouldn’t wear a backpack but need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle. No matter how often I organize and repack the books, I have no space available for my iPod.

The first sentence is easy. It’s a simple, independent clause. The second sentence is a compound sentence because we add the dependent clause modifying the subject straps. The dependent clause, so named because it’s not a complete sentence on its own, should be set aside with a pair of commas (think of them as parentheses). If you delete the dependent clause, the sentence still stands: The straps must be reinforced is an independent clause.

Unless a dependent clause is used as an introductory clause, it should be offset by a pair of commas, one at the beginning and one at the end of the clause. The straps, which bear the weight of six textbooks and a laptop, must be reinforced. Commas aren’t necessary in I wouldn’t wear a backpack but need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle. “I” is the subject of both wouldn’t wear a backpack and need my hands free. If written as two independent clauses, it would need a comma before the conjunction but I wouldn’t wear a backpack, but I need my hands free for the handlebars of my bicycle.

Commas have other uses, too, i.e. separating items in a series: Inside my backpack are pencils, a calculator, textbooks, and a laptop. 

A rule of thumb is write the sentence first without commas. If it makes sense without a pause, leave it alone. If you find the sentence convoluted and confusing, you need a set of commas.

Wherefore art thou Romeo? Or are you Uninterested? ☺

Here’s trivia for you. The word wherefore is an adverb from Shakespeare’s time. It means why. Or as a noun, it means purpose. It doesn’t mean location. Wherefore art thou Romeo would’ve had a comma after thou if Juliet had been asking his location. But she’s asking why her love for him torments her heart when he’s forbidden to her by her family. Deny thy father and refuse thy name…

Light years is a measure of distance, not time. That planet is light years from our galaxy. You don’t say She’s light years ahead of him in class. Years will suffice.

Here’s one that trips me up: disinterested and uninterested. There is a difference if you’re <ahem> interested. ;-) Disinterested means impartial. Uninterested means indifferent. Through years of usage, however, they’ve evolved into synonyms. I’ve read both A legal mediator is uninterested in the dispute and A legal mediator is disinterested in the dispute. I’ve decided to avoid using either word and reach for the Roget’s for an alternative.

Do you know the true meaning of impeach? Some think it means to remove from office. However, one may be impeached (charged) without being convicted. Remember President Clinton? Charges were brought against him for improper conduct in office, but he wasn’t convicted. Two presidents have been impeached in the United States, but neither have been removed from office.

Most writers know the difference between council and counsel, but what about consul? Consul is a noun meaning a representative or ambassador who resides in a foreign country to represent his nation’s citizen’s interests. The British consul met with the tourist about his lost passport. 

That’s today’s hodgepodge of trivia. (FYI hodgepodge refers to a mix or conglomeration. The term evolved from a soup or stew made of assorted foods cooked in a common pot during the fifteenth century.)

You’re entitled to title

The Grammar Cop has a list of infractions most annoying. You’ve read most of them in this blog, everything from its vs. it’s to non-words irregardless and reoccurring. Another is the misuse of the word entitle.

Today on Facebook I read a post about a new song entitled ________. A song is titled. It isn’t entitled. If you write a book, you or your publisher title it. According to your contract with your publisher, you are entitled to royalties. You don’t entitle your book.

Writers confuse the words title and entitle because they don’t understand their meanings. To title means to give a name. One titles their songs, stories, pictures, etc. 


Entitle means give. You’re entitled to your opinion means you have a right to your point of view. 

Resist the slang. Use the words properly.

Using Portmanteaus in Writing

What is a portmanteau and why should you care? The first portmanteau I remember was motel. Originally, it blended the words hotel and motorist, hence a motorist’s hotel. Motel. Now motel is an accepted word found in all dictionaries. My favorite was probably cheeseburger, blending cheese and hamburger. The word smog, blending smoke and fog, has been around as long as I have (long time!). TV cook Rachael Ray created her own portmanteau of stoup (thicker than soup but thinner than stew). Designer dog breed names are portmanteaus: cock-a-poo, labradoodle, puggle, etc.

There are lists of portmanteaus. If you’re interested, do a search. What concerns us as authors is the use of portmanteaus in our writing. Historical fiction writers especially need to know the origins of any portmanteau before using it. The origins might out-date the setting of your story. For instance, in the early 1970s, ranchers began breeding cattle with bison to produce beefalo. Larry McMurtry knew better than to have Gus and Call mention beefalo, motels, or frenemy in his Pulitzer-award-winning novel Lonesome Dove. Call and Gus definitely didn’t have a bromance

If your character chortles, he or she must live in a time after Lewis Carrol, who created the word from snort and chuckle. Not to be snarky, but did you know snark is a portmanteau of snide remark?

As always, when in doubt look it up. Don’t guesstimate.*

*From guess and estimate

INFORMALLY SPEAKING

Remember my rant about “like” as a dialog tag? 

The following is not an example of a dialog tag and should never be used in writing (And I wish it was never used. Period!):

“She was like, ‘why am I here?’ and I’m like “you’re the bridesmaid. You have to help pick out the dress.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s your wedding. Pick what you want.’ and I’m like, ‘It’s your dress. I want your input.’ And she’s like, “Girl, it’s not as if I’ll ever wear it again. I have, like, a dozen bridesmaids’ dresses hanging in my closet now that I wore one time.’”

Yuck! I definitely don’t like reading this passage of dialog!

My advice works if you’re writing formal fiction or a business document, but what about chick lit? (Or any contemporary fiction aimed at the younger adult population?) Well, my friend, my advice is out the window. 

In fiction writing, you write what works. Stream of consciousness, first person, bad grammar, popular slang, whatever, as long as you do so intentionally.

The Grammar Cop may give you a warning, but she won’t cite you for a grammar infraction if said infraction fits the voice of your character or story.

However, if you want to write formal and proper dialog, please review my post from two years ago about dialog tags.

Are Reticent and Reluctant Synonyms?

Recent posts have been about misused and misunderstood words, inspired by the American Heritage Dictionaries* editors.Here’s another to add to your vocabulary: reticent and reluctant.

Are reticent and reluctant synonyms? Well…yes and no. Remember my rant about decimate? The term that technically refers to removing one/tenth of a given population has evolved in usage as a synonym for annihilate. Usage has confused the word reticent, too.

Reticent people are reserved, especially among strangers. They may be reluctant to talk about themselves, but that doesn’t make them reluctant in all things.

So don’t apply the adjective reticent when you mean reluctant. I am not reticent, but I’m reluctant to gamble large amounts of money in a casino.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention remiss, another word often confused with reluctant. Remiss means negligent or careless. If you’re remiss in your job duties, it may be because you’re reluctant to perform the work, but the two words aren’t synonymous. 

*Houghton Mifflin Books, 2004:100 words almost everyone confuses & misuses

Flammable or Inflammable?

Here is another word choice dilemma for you: Flammable and Inflammable. If you look up definitions for the words, they read the same: Easily ignited and combustible. Inflammable (or inflame), while correct, is confusing because of the prefix “in.” Some words  are made negative with the “in” prefix (Inert, inglorious, inconceivable). Inflammable, however, means flammable. So which is correct?

While inflammable is a word, Grammar Cop strongly suggests you use flammable. For safety reasons, you don’t want anyone mistaking inflammable for unflammable.