Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Comma Question

by A. G. Case

Newly married, former NYC police Lt. Jo Garcia leaves the city to become the first woman officer in the small upstate community of Indian Cove. When the head accountant in the local school district dies at her desk after a late night, local law enforcement assume it’s a natural death, but Jo is suspicious. When a second death occurs, Jo sets out to find the truth, despite direct orders not to, from her new Chief.

Question from the e-mail:  I got a rejection from a small publisher recently and, since you were talking about comments scrawled on the rejection slips a couple of days ago, I thought I'd ask what it means when they say, "Grammar needs work."

Answer:  With us it usually means the speech tags and action tags are interchangable, when the speech tag should hook on with a comma and and the action tag gets a whole sentence of its own.

Either that are there  are mistakes in comma placement in general.  Commas, are often done wrongfully. Most often they leave off one of a pair needed to spearate a parenthetical clause, or one that demands a pause in delivery and has been left out.

Now I've heard writing teachers, even very good ones, adivse new writers to leave out commas if they're not really needed. The trick is to Know When they can safely be left out. Only when the meaning is perfectly clear wihtout them can a comma be safely be left out. It is never safe to leave out half of a parenthetical pair, as that can easily confuse the reader.

Here's my best very basic advice about commas. A comma is a pause. Put them where you'd pause for breath or for effect. There's a world of difference between:

    "Shoot John!" and

    "Shoot, John!

In one sentence John gets shot, in the other he is instructed to shoot. That can make a big difference to your reader, as well as to John.

Writing teachers have lists and lists of rules of good writng. Publishers only have two rules:

1. Never confuse the reader.

2. Never make extra work for your editor.


  1. I like Benny Hill shooting a scene. In closeup the actress says,
    "What is this thing called, love?" And Mr. Hill, the director says, "No no, you twit. It's 'What is this thing called love?'"

  2. Love it. Next to dangling participles these are my favorite kind of collectable grammar goofs...