Friday, February 20, 2015

Technical Topics -- Breaking Comma Rules for Fun and Profit

... or, like, not
Punctuation Rule Breakage
Pro or con?

Elsewhere somebody talked about leaving out commas when he didn't like them. This is a response I made.
I'm assuming this is breaking hard rules, not just using the great expanse of stylistic wriggle-room Chicago Manual of Style and its brothers leave us.

I came up with five consideration to think about when playing fast and loose with commas. This holds true with a lot of writerly eccentricities besides comma punctuation, I suppose.

First off,
Let's say you leave out commas that do not, for some reason, please you on a case-by-case basis.

The publisher's copyeditor will have to laboriously add or remove those off-brand commas.
She really has no idea which comma-errors are done on purpose and which are true mistakes. She has to mark them all.
While she's doing all that comma work, she's not fine-combing your manuscript for other problems.
She's only got a set number of hours, most likely .
What do you want her to work on?

Managing Editore: Been a hard week
When you're confronted with her copyedits, you now have many hundreds of editorial marks and comments that you have to go through and leave in place or stet.

Then the Managing Editor picks up this complicated mess and says "I got an author here who doesn't know basic punctuation" or worse, "He's doing this on purpose?"
The Managing Editor's job is to look at every stet and say 'yes' to some and 'no' to some. You've given him work. Much work.
You have just pissed off the Managing Editor.
This is not a good thing
for anybody.

There will be some important stets you want to make. It's easier to argue for that one important stet if you have not just been stroppy over 800 missing-comma stets.

Sometimes we don't want to innovate
Whatever the outcome, the copyeditor, the Managing Editor, and you have wasted a lot of time and effort.


Finally --

While most readers won't notice commas one way or the other . . .

the ones who do notice intermittent use of the Oxford comma or failure to set off essential relative clauses with commas
will not only be distracted from the flow of your fiction,
they will see these as mistakes arising from the author's ignorance
rather than considered authorial choice
and in their heart of hearts, they will think less of you.


  1. It's not you I'd think less of, it's the editing! Hahaha!

    I probably didn't put the comma in the correct place.

    1. I don't know all the punctuation rules and grammar rules. I try to be knowledgeable, but that's really a copyediting specialty.

  2. The rules for using commas have evolved because they aid understanding and make the text easier to read and understand. Deliberately ignoring them is likely to result in the reader stumbling when reading or having to re-read to understand.

    1. The best way to make your punctuation invisible -- which is the way you want it -- is to use ordinary correct punctuation, ISTM

    2. *nods* Exactly. Although I have issues with the Oxford comma because I was brought up not to do "comma and". I'm not sure if it's a British thing or an age thing.

    3. I'm an Oxford comma sorta person. I've never been able to figure out where the line is drawn in this conflict.

      Chicago versus AP rules is the way I think about it, with AP being the journalists' stylebook.

    4. Rachel3:53 AM

      As to where the line is drawn, I generally don't use the Oxford comma except when listing items that are joined by a conjunction. For example: "Her sewing bag contained needles and thread, hooks and buttons, and a pair of scissors."

      I'm not sure if that would be considered heresy or practicality...

    5. Sounds like a good practical place to put a comma. One can always add that comma when it's needed for comprehension.

  3. The huge question of whether or not to comma has been the cause of many a fistfight :-)

    1. It's a brave Oxford comma man who walks into Pub full of non-Oxford-comma supporters.

  4. Anonymous8:24 PM

    Thank you. I had a discussion with a young man who had decided not to use chapters in his YA scifi because two literary novels didn't and they won awards. He's adamant he doesn't need them. He wants to be different.

    Go forth, young Jedi, and set the world on fire. I'm sure those agents you're submitting to will love it.

    I can't read one literary author due to their disdain for certain punctuation. I just can't. I've tried. It drives me nuts. What do I know? He wins awards.

    1. I have a feeling folks either grow out of this
      or they become unique and famous
      or they join the Foreign Legion and go to Libya.

  5. LOL! I think I'll do my commas by the book. ;-)

    1. I am far more intimate with the Chicago Manual of Style than I ever wished to be.