I know, I know, no one likes learning about grammar/punctuation. It’s eye-glazingly dry. Still, a little refresher now and again, never hurts, so why not grab a cup of java and put the old feet up? Promise. This’ll be relatively short and sweet.
As an editor, I see two common practices: the comma used [way] too often and the comma used not at all. This indicator of a “brief pause” serves a purpose. Like anything, should be used in moderation—but not ignored.
No: “I said its vodka and tonic it will be fine” Lenora winked “a good thing it wasn’t your rum and cola or you would have a major cleaning bill”
No: Mrs. Ralston helped me today, but what if she hadn’t found me? I can’t tell her what happened, at the rally, I can’t even tell my brother, so what will I say?
Let’s avoid in-depth/overloaded info that leads to furrowed brows and a dull headache, shall we? Comma basics (just a handful), as they relate to fiction writing, are as follows.
Use commas to separate words and phrase in a series.
Larry said he’d bring wine, cheese, and chocolate.
Separate two adjectives when the order is switchable.
Petra is a beautiful, fit woman. / Petra is a fit, beautiful woman.
Now, we get into those lovely little things called “clauses” (yes, I’m wincing, too)—groups of words that contain a subject and a predicate.
♦ Subject: every sentence has a subject and an action.
♦ Predicate: every sentence has a predicate, too. A predicate is everything that follows the subject (and has one finite verb).
Some writers will run two independent clauses together with a comma. What’s the result? That’s right. A run-on sentence.
No: Jane raced into the pub, she knocked over a server
Yes: Jane raced into the pub and knocked over a server. / When Jane raced into the pub, she knocked over a server.
When there are two independent clauses joined by a connector such as “but”, “and”, or “as”, place the comma at the end of the first clause.
No: Jane raced into the pub and she knocked over a server.
Yes: Jane raced into the pub, and she knocked over a server.
If the clauses are super short, you can omit the comma (a personal preference thing).
Roger writes poems and Marshall paints watercolors.
If there’s no subject before the second verb, you don’t really need a comma.
Freddy finished mixing the dough but had forgotten to heat the oven.
However, if there’s a chance of confusing the reader, add that comma.
No: Patty noticed Jeb was preoccupied with work and slipped out the back door.
Yes: Patty noticed Jeb was preoccupied with work, and slipped out the back door.
With the comma, it’s clear that Patty’s the one who slipped out.
Now, let’s take a gander at commas in dialogue.
Use commas to launch or separate direct quotations.
Nathan muttered, “Not in this lifetime.”
“What,” Leo asked crossly, “is wrong with him?”
If the quotation comes before she said, Dawson grumbled, they stated, and so forth, use a comma to end the dialogue (even if only a solitary word).
“In a pig’s eye,” Gerry spat.
“Please,” she implored.
Now that you’ve finished your java (I’ve finished my second), I’ll leave you to mull over the uses and applications of the ever useful punctuation mark, our little friend, the comma.