Back when I started this blog, we were venturing on our first Whittlesey Wordsmiths compilation. Now our burgeoning writing group is putting together another anthology, and I’m re-posting my earliest discoveries about those confusing commas, some of which I find I had forgotten since originally posting them.
With apologies to those of my readers who know this better than I do. (Please don’t be shy; join in at the bottom.)
Do you remember being told at school that commas indicate a pause in the sentence?
(Okay – maybe it was only at primary school. . .)
I have a piece of editing software. (Mine is ProWritingAid; other editing software is available.) I use it for a final check, and its reports regularly tell me I’ve missed out a required comma or put one in where I shouldn’t.
The explanations use phrases like subordinate clause and relative pronoun which, I confess, sailed over my head when driven to get to the end of the report. When I did stop to engage my brain, I recalled that a subordinate clause (sometimes called a dependent clause) is the bit that doesn’t make sense on its own, while the main clause of a sentence is grammatically complete and does make sense on its own.
When it rains, I take an umbrella.
Eventually, it sunk in that a subordinate clause preceding the main clause of the sentence requires a comma – as in the sentence above.
But. . . when the sentence is the other way around, we don’t use a comma.
I take an umbrella when it rains.
That was the easy bit.
Having realised I might be getting this wrong, I did some searching online and disturbed a hornets’ nest of comma counsels.
I learned that it is acceptable to dispense with certain commas where the sentence is short and meaning clear. Take, for instance this single short, clear phrase:
When it rains, I take an umbrella.
When it rains I take an umbrella.
Either version is correct. Here’s another example:
Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands.
Here, the comma is apparently optional (depending on which website you consult) but helpful due to the length of the phrase. If the subordinate phrase is longer than three or four words it’s probably better off with a comma.
Reducing the number of commas cluttering up your sentence can make for a smoother read as long as it doesn’t lead to ambiguity – cue the intervention of that thing called the Oxford comma (also termed the serial comma) to further confuse us.
The Oxford Comma
Back in those dark ages of the fifties, I was taught that the other use of commas was to separate a list of items, as in . . .
Bring me two apples, a pear and an orange.
The Oxford comma is the one sometimes added after the penultimate item in a list, before the and or or – where my English teacher taught us no comma was required.
Bring me two apples, a pear, and an orange.
Sometimes it clarifies matters. Compare…
I live with Sam, a friend, and a dog.
I live with Sam, a friend and a dog.
You can see how this construction could confuse the unwary.
If there is no ambiguity to resolve, its use is a matter of style. But that raises the spectre of consistency.
Editing software alerts me if I haven’t been consistent in applying (or not) my Oxford commas.
But must I be consistent in this particular construct? The software picks up inconsistencies anyway, such as words that appear capitalised in places and uncapitalised in others. (Expect unwanted alerts if you’ve included the title of your story in the report.)
If warnings about inconsistent Oxford comma-ing are merely following this same consistency rule, are they safe to ignore?
Advice I have found is relaxed about this but mostly agrees with Wikipedia that, ‘Inconsistent usage can seem unprofessional.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#In_general )
Another confusion I have encountered when editing is how commas work with dialogue.
Commas – and full stops (or periods) – should always be inside the final speech marks in dialogue. But when the “said” comes before the words spoken, that “said” needs a comma too – see below.
Janet said, “I hate commas.”
“Not as much as I do,” said John.
The editing software I use can be found at https://prowritingaid.com/. I don’t always agree with its alerts. Software only applies rules (okay, algorithms); it doesn’t – yet – judge rhythm or style.
Each issue highlighted by a ProWritingAid report will require human assessment, but – irrespective of the number of edits I’ve already done – its report inevitably finds errors I’ve overlooked (another reason why I decided against proofreading as a retirement career).
An online search will bring up other editing software. Reviews can help you decide. Grammarly (at https://www.grammarly.com/) is another popular online editor, and there is a comparison of these two resources at https://comparisons.financesonline.com/grammarly-vs-pro-writing-aid.
There is also a list of top ten grammar resources at https://grammar-checker.financesonline.com/#products with reviews of each.
There’s a lot of information out there about commas – too much for one blog post unless you need a cure for insomnia. In my next post, I’ll try to make sense of some more of it.