One of the most feared punctuations among novelists is the comma. Sure, there are rules upon rules that address the most specific sentence scenario, but I think what’s most important is for writers to understand how they work in relationship with the foundation of a sentence. To accomplish this, I think there are some basic guidelines that can be followed.
First, the basics: it’s critical for every writer to understand the difference between an independent and dependent clause.
This part of the sentence (or clause) can stand alone as a sentence all by itself. That means it has a subject and a verb.
Example: “Bill likes to ride his bike.”
A dependent (or subordinate) clause cannot stand alone, because it does not express a complete thought.
Examples of subordinate clauses are in bold:
- Bill likes to run, as opposed to walk.
- Because he likes to be fit, Bill likes to run.
In both of these examples, “Bill likes to run” is still an independent clause.
How does this all relate to comma usage? Let’s step it up a bit.
When a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) is used to connect two independent clauses, insert a comma just before that conjunction. Example: “Bill likes to run, and his wife likes to ride her bike.
Think of these as a sort of aside to the main thought of your sentence. It usually adds context to whatever the sentence is relaying, but it’s something that can be taken out without compromising the integrity of the sentence. Example of a parenthetical: “Bill, who is very fit, likes to run.” Now, before moving on, it’s really important to grasp how these parenthetical elements work within a sentence. To use a common analogy, think of the main foundation of the sentence as a table and the parenthetical element as a hot dish with the surrounding commas as handles for that hot dish. In order to place the hot dish onto the table, you’d have to use the handles. Same goes for if you want to remove the parenthetical element from the sentence. You can’t add or remove the parenthetical without the commas being in the correct spot…
…which brings me to an important, but controversial, point.
What do you do with commas when you have a parenthetical element directly following a coordinating conjunction? Take the following sentence as an example (for now, I’m leaving out the commas):
- “Bill likes to ride his bike and because she hates pedaling his wife likes to run.”
More often than not, I’ve seen this sentence written as such:
- “Bill likes to ride his bike, and, because she hates pedaling, his wife likes to run.”
The problem with this method is that it can unintentionally confuse the reader into identifying “Bill likes to run” and “because she hates pedaling” as the mainframe of the sentence, which flat out doesn’t work because the latter line is a parenthetical and not an independent clause. One way I’ve seen this sentence written out (and I’m seeing this presented as the norm more and more these days) is like this:
- “Bill likes to ride his bike, and because she hates pedaling, his wife likes to run.”
But there’s a problem here, too. Remember, those commas are the handles of the parenthetical (or “hot dish”), which means and becomes a part of that parenthetical rather than serving as a connection for the two independent clauses (“Bill likes to ride his bike” and “his wife likes to run”). Fundamentally, that does not work as a sentence either, because you always have to maintain the linkage between the mainframes of the sentence for it to be validated as a sentence.
The way I was taught—which happens to be the method that makes the most sense to me—looks like this:
- “Bill likes to ride his bike and, because she hates pedaling, his wife likes to ride her bike.”
This method disregards the rule of inserting a comma before the coordinating conjunction, but it merely sacrifices this semantic in order to maintain the clarity and structural integrity of the sentence.
The bottom line is this: there are always exceptions to rules and, especially in fiction writing, rules can be broken. You just have to be careful about when and how you break them…and why.
When it comes to comma usage, train yourself to pay close attention to the various parts of the sentence and, when in doubt, go with what presents the most clarity to your reader. The methods above will be clearest in most cases, I think, but remembering rules can be more difficult than simply learning to identify and parse out the components of a sentence when necessary.
For those who still need the “rules,” here are some of the more basic ones to follow:
- Use a comma to separate elements in a series of three or more. Example: He rode his bike, jogged around the lake, and did several pushups. (Note that in some styles of writing, you don’t need the final comma in a list preceding the “and”).
- Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives. Example: “the obnoxious, pompous, superficial man” as opposed to “the little old lady.” Rule of thumb for this one: if you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, it probably needs a comma.
- Use a comma to set apart quoted elements. Example : John said, “I want to go to bed.” Or “I want to go to bed,” said John.
- Use a comma to set off phrases that express contrast. Example: “Lucy thought the teacher was drier than toast, not a great storyteller.”
- Use a comma to avoid confusion. This one can be tricky and take some finesse. In some cases, not including a comma can mean that two words/thoughts are connected in such a way that the meaning of the sentence is drastically changed. Example: “Outside, the road was covered in a dusting of snow,” as opposed to, “Outside the road was covered in a dusting of snow.” In the latter example, it sounds like the author is saying “outside OF the road,” when what he or she intends to mean is that outside is where the snow covered the road.
A common attitude toward commas is that a copy editor will fix all the mistakes—and this is unfortunate. Commas are a very powerful tool when it comes to an author’s ability to steer the reader to the story’s intended goal. It can also be a huge trap if the comma usage has unintentionally changed the meaning of a sentence or caused unnecessary confusion.
The trick to comma usage is more about understanding and mastering the parts of a sentence. My challenge to all writers is to make a point to get smart about these things, because ultimately it will make you that much better of a writer and that much more in command of your writing tools.