Introduction to “An Editor’s Comments” series:
Over the next while, I’ll be posting samples of comments that I have made to my editing and proofreading clients. Some will be on “technical” aspects, like today’s topic, “commas.” Others will be on things like style, choosing a publishing method, considering your audience, or developing a theme. My comments are directed to a client’s particular needs and are sometimes quite different than you’ll find in a style manual or other editing book. Hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful! If you want to learn more, check out the “Various Editor’s Tips” section on my “Writing and Editing Articles” table of contents.
Everyone has trouble with commas!
Don’t worry! Everyone has trouble with commas–me included. The Chicago Manual of Style (the “style Bible” ) has something like 14 pages on commas! So don’t feel bad. A lot of authors nowadays are even tossing out as many commas as possible. So it’s important to understand the basics of “comma rules”–and then be careful if you decide to do your own thing. If you are writing a special kind of document, for example, an article for a newspaper or magazine, or an academic thesis, there are special style manuals for those which you’ll want to follow. Also, some organizations and institutions have their own style manuals and if you are writing for them, you’ll need to follow their rules.
Commas (and other punctuation and wording) in different countries:
(Written to a client from Britain): You use very few commas, and you sometimes use semicolons in places where a comma would suffice. I am wondering if you use so few commas because you prefer a script that is “very clean” in appearance, or if you simply aren’t used to the common rules of commas in Canada and the USA. I notice also that you use the British format for periods at the end of dialogue quotations (period after the quotation mark—here in North America we use the period before the quotation mark). Related to this is the case of British words and expressions you have used; while they are fine for a British audience, a North American audience might have some difficulties with them. All these things I have mentioned directly in the manuscript, and how you will handle them depends on whether you intend to sell your book to chiefly a British audience, or a North American one. If you hope to eventually do both, you might want to have 2 copies of your manuscript, one featuring British words and rules, and one featuring North American words and rules. It would not be difficult to do both, as the differences aren’t huge, but they still might be fairly significant to the readership.
The “graphic art” of using commas:
Yes, commas are tricky. I am going, in this edit, with the “rules” in the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard for fiction and memoirs, and for certain types of non-fiction books. But there is a growing movement of people who prefer to use as few commas as possible, mainly because they feel commas make the script look cluttered (or perhaps because following all those comma rules can be so complicated). As an artist, I expect your friend would feel this way about clutter, with her “graphic” sensibilities. Of course, “rules are made to be broken” and as a self-publishing author, you have the right to make the final decisions on things like this. Though if your book will be published by a traditional publisher, they may insist on following many, if not all the rules. Just be careful: commas can really change meaning! Example: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” OR: “Let’s eat Grandma!” Also, as I’ve mentioned before, there are different style manuals for different types of writing. Newspapers follow the AP Style (Associated Press) guide which minimizes comma use, due to narrow columns of print, short articles, and the need to squeeze in as much print and and as many illustrations as possible in limited space. In these situations, commas really do cause a cluttered look!
What about when there are options?
Just to let you know, some items (such as words with hyphens or not; and the placing of commas in lists with “and” before the final item in the list) are choices we make based on the fact that some of these “rules” have options. Where there are options available, we need to make choices that are true to the type of writing (fiction, non-fiction, technical, etc.), to the setting of the story, and to the audience. And then–try to be consistent as much as possible.