To COMMA OR NOT TO COMMA?

Last week I posted about commas because I get so many questions about them. There are hard and fast rules. Then there is the world of fiction writing, where sentence fragments, slang, and almost anything goes if it makes a readable and engaging story. In fiction writing, there is one rule: The publisher has the final say.

You certainly can make a case for the use/deletion of a comma when doing final edits, but is it worth the battle? That’s up to you. Unless an editor’s change messes up the meaning of my sentence, I let it go. Of course, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had reasonable, efficient editors for all my books and publishers.

What about you? As writers, have you any editing horror stories to share? (But please, no names! Let the offenders remain anonymous.) Specifically, have any of you almost come to blows over a comma?

Calm the Comma-phobia

The most questions I get from my readers concern the comma. The comma intimidates writers (except author Steve Berry, the self-proclaimed Comma Kamikaze ☺). Unfortunately, correct comma usage is difficult to nail. The best I can offer comes from current acceptable standards found in updated reference materials.

In a sentence with two or more independent clauses, the comma must precede the coordinate conjunction (words such as and, but, for, so, yet, while, or, nor, and whereas).

She bought a new dress, and her sister bought a CD.

I do my reading and paper work in bed at night, while my brother stays up late watching Leno. 

No comma is used before and, but, or, nor, and yet when the coordinate conjunction joins two words, two phrases, or two dependent clauses.

He has neither the willingness nor the ability to pay his bill.

Bravely, she stepped onto the stage but realized she couldnt speak a word.

Why no comma in these two examples?  The clauses share a single subject. He hasn’t the willingness to pay. He hasn’t the ability to pay. She stepped on stage. She realized she couldn’t speak. In either example, we see two actions tied to a single subject.

What happens when a second subject is introduced?  We no longer have two dependent clauses:

You can make an appointment now, or we will call you later.

You is the subject of the first clause, and we is the subject of the second, bringing us back to the first scenario with two independent clauses.

Related to this is the couplet following a verb. In a simple sentence, the word and is sufficient.

They agreed to divide the cash and to put the stock in a trust fund.

Focusing on sentence structure is a good start to overcoming your comma-phobia. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the comma, so watch for future posts.

Choose or chose? Loose or lose? Ensure or insure?

SpellCheck is a wonderful tool featured in my word processing software. It’s saved me from many typos. But navigating the spelling waters is tricky when it comes to correctly spelled but incorrectly used words.

You may intend to type “celebrate” but your fingers type “celebate.” Both words spelled correctly meaning different things. Previously I posted about “mandolin” (the instrument) instead of “mandoline” (the cutting tool) that appears in my latest cookbook. I’m still suffering bouts of embarrassment over that fiasco.

Here are a few commonly misused words that writers should double-check.

Choose or chose?

Choose is present tense; chose is past. Simple as that.
She wondered which tie he would choose. Relief filled her when he chose the blue plaid.

Loose or lose?

Not as simple as choose and chose. Loose means not tight and lose means rid or misplace.
The jeans were so loose, she decided she didn’t need to lose weight.

Ensure (forget the meal replacement drink) is not the same as insure. To make certain, you ensure. To protect against loss, you contact an insurance company to insure.
He paid a premium to insure his life. If he died, he wanted to ensure his children didn’t go hungry.

A book I recommend (if you can find it) is Words You Thought You Knew… by Jenna Glatzer. It contains (as its subtitle says) 1001 Commonly Misused and Misunderstood Words and Phrases.

Forward or Foreword?

I recently read a book that began with a Forward. I don’t know who edited the book, but I suspect the writer intended the page to be a foreword, which is a noun that means preface. Forward is an adverb meaning onward or advancing.

The same mistake could happen with afterward and afterword. An afterword appears at the end of a book and is, as its name suggests, a postscript by the author. Afterward is an adverb meaning later.

When in doubt, consult a dictionary.