As kids, we are taught the unbreakable rules of grammar and punctuation. As writers, we find out many of those rules are more like guidelines when it comes to writing correctly. This is especially true for what might be the most used punctuation mark in English: the comma.
Fiction writers share a lot of traits with pirates. While we do have to follow certain codes, there is definitely a lot of flexibility, too. You should know the rules so that you can break them correctly and with intention.
Lots of writers tell me that grammar and punctuation are the worst part of writing. There is some sort of epic battle going on in their heads about the difference between telling a story and getting the mechanics right.
This may come as a shock to many, but commas were invented to help readers, not to frustrate writers. Without commas, “sentence parts can collide into one another unexpectedly, causing misreadings.” (So sayeth A Writer’s Reference, Eighth Edition. The following rules were pulled from the same book. )
Yes, free writing and stream of consciousness are viable options for anyone that wants to venture into experimental storytelling. But when you do commercial fiction, it is best to make it easy for readers to read.
Rule: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses.
I have been working to train my dog in basic commands, and we are going through a lot of treats.
A couple definitions might help with this one. An independent clause could be a complete sentence on its own. In the example above, I have been working to train my dog in basic commands could stand alone as a sentence. In an effort to vary our sentence length and make the narrative more interesting, however, we often combine clauses into more complex sentences.
The seven coordinating conjunctions are and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet. These are best explained by School House Rock.
Guideline: If the clauses are short you do not need a comma.
Dog training is fun but uses lots of treats.
If you aren’t sure if the length of the clauses demand a comma or not, read the sentence out loud in a normal, conversational voice. If you feel a natural pause between the clauses, then add a comma.
I feel like someone should write a song about this… If you’re needing some pauses/ between those clauses/ there’s no drama/ just add that comma!
Clearly, I am not the right person to write this song.
Rule: Use commas to set off transitional and parenthetical expressions, absolute phrases, and word groups expressing contrast.
My dog is adorable, and crazy, but mostly adorable.
If I were saying this out loud, the “and crazy” would be said with a change in tone and probably a wink of the eye or a head tilt. When writing narration, you can use these parentheticals to add context or snark to descriptions without over explaining.
Guideline: If you don’t need the pause, you don’t need the comma.
My dog is adorable and crazy, but mostly adorable.
The words are the same, but the intonation would be different. This construct doesn’t have that wink-and-a-head-tilt tone to it. It's a more straightforward description.
Ultimately, the goal of punctuation is to provide clarity. However, it should be noted that the reference guide mentioned above has nine pages dedicated to the rules for using commas, most rules include specific exceptions, and there are four additional pages dedicated to the unnecessary uses of commas.
That is a lot of exceptions.
Writers should have a good handle on mechanics, but don’t get lost in the details. Hire a proofreader before clicking publish. Regardless of your own command of the rules (and guidelines!) of grammar, proofreading your own work is nearly impossible because you are too close to it. You know what it is supposed to say, so your brain will fix the errors for you. Having someone else read your work and let you know if your intentions are clear is a key part of the publishing process.
I happen to know a good proofreader 😉 so reach out when you are ready.