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.

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Dialog Punctuation and Style

Last month I posted about the wrong way to punctuate and format dialog. This post is about the right way. (FYI I’m addressing the American rules for dialog; the British have different rules for formatting dialogue.)

With tongue firmly in cheek, let’s start with these examples:

“I can’t believe I ate that whole pineapple!” Bob said, dolefully.
“I haven’t caught a fish all day,” Mike said, without debate.
“I won’t let a stupid flat tire let me down,” Steve said, with despair.
“I keep banging my head on things,” Marty said, bashfully.
“That is the second time my teacher changed my grade,” Donna remarked.
“The fur is falling out of that mink coat,” Steven inferred.
“That’s the second electric shock that I’ve gotten today,” Stew said, revolted.
“I’ll just have to send that telegram again,” Samuel said, remorsefully.
“I’ve been sick and lost a lot of weight,” Rachel expounded.

These are examples of dialog tags formatted correctly (I do hope you’ll resist the adverbs ☺). What the character says is within quotation marks, including punctuation. But what about dialog within dialog? Or interrupted speech? Relax. There are rules for formatting complex dialog issues, too. Here are a few basics:

  • If you’re switching speakers, you need a new paragraph. However, a line of dialogue within a paragraph of narrative is not technically wrong. Use your judgment. You don’t want an important speech lost in a lengthy passage of description. When in doubt, err on the side of what printers call “white space.” It makes your text more readable.
  • Interrupted speech is formatted with the em dash or double hyphen; Trailing speech is formatted with three periods.
  • A tag follows a comma (or question mark or exclamation point) with he said or she said. You’ll see hundreds of variations of this tag, everything from “he responded” to “she answered” to “she replied.” What you shouldn’t see is anything that’s physically impossible or implausible, such as “she laughed” or “he snorted.” You can’t laugh or snort words. If you want your speaker laughing or snorting, fine. Make it a sentence of its own.
  • A statement of action (complete sentence) is not a tag and should not be preceded by a comma.
  • Double quotation marks surround the entire speech, including punctuation. Single quotation marks are for speech-within-a-speech. For instance, “How dare he call me ‘Queen Victoria!'”

Remember, dialog is a good way to move the story, as long as you don’t fall into the “As you know, Bob” trap. That’s a rookie mistake that goes something like this:

“I can’t believe I ate all the pineapple!”
“As you know, Bob, your father, your grandfather, and your great-grandfather owned pineapple plantations. It’s natural you’d overindulge.”
Bob huffed an impatient breath. “You’d think I’d know how to control myself.”
“You’ve had a rough year, remember? You’re going through a particularly nasty divorce, which has been tabloid fodder all year.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Exactly! Tell Bob something he doesn’t know, not a bunch of backstory for the reader’s benefit. Use dialog to reveal character values and traits, not backstory the character already knows.

Any other dialog issues challenging your writing? Leave me a comment.