Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Great Historical Read, and a Comma Question

Alba Series, Vol. 1

Finlay was the recognized heir to the throne of 11th Century Alba when the king began a plot to install his grandson Duncan. Finlay finds his girl is married off to his cousin, his best friend joins the opposing side, and Duncan plans war. Life becomes especially difficult when Thorfinn of Orkney and his sister take hand in the game.

Question from the E-mail: Someone in my writing group keeps arguing that we should "leave out all the commas" unless they are really Needed, "Because they just slow the reader down." Even my high school English Teacher would have screamed about that?  And how  do we know when they're really needed.

Answer:  In my earliest writing days, I  tossed in a comma every place I stopped and thought what I really wanted to say. That is, until Alice Orr, who was then an editor in a major publishing house, just crossed her eyes at me and sighed. "Your commas, Arline." Later, I was given the same advice as you, but not by Alice, and so I had more sense that to follow that without due consideration.

Officially, a comma separates main clauses joined by a coordinating injunction, such as and, but, or because. Paired commas set off a long phrase that interrupts a main clause. Commas are also used to set off transitional words and expressions, like meanwhile, however, or usually, from the main clauses that follow. Commas also separate words, phrases, or clauses in series and, when necessary, set off parenthetical elements in the sentence.

Those are the  comma rules that some say, "Follow them religiously! and other say, "Don't bother." But here's the bottom Line.

Here's my best very basic advice about leaving out commas. Put them where you'd pause for breath or effect.

There's a world of difference between:

    "Shoot John!" and

    "Shoot, John!"

In the first 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.

Publishers only have two rules:

1. NEVER confuse the reader.

2. NEVER make work for your editor.

If you write, "Shoot John!" without the comma, and John is doing the shooting, then the editor will have to go back, reread the material again to make sure exactly who's getting shot, and add the comma for you, so the reader won't be confused about whether John is shooting, or being shot.