Author Topic: Using the comma in anger  (Read 15632 times)

Offline Chord

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Using the comma in anger
« on: April 06, 2009, 06:20:46 AM »
How to use the comma in anger

There are four main ways we use commas; compounds, qualifiers, lists and exclamations. Now, before I start, I donít claim to be an expert on this and Iím very much trying to give an accessible guide, not a learned discourse. I may have made some mistakes in here and Iíve written it from a UK not US perspective (though Iíve tried to keep it as international as possible). I hope this helps out a bit.

Compounds

Letís start with compounds. The comma is used to bang together a couple of ideas. Often both parts could stand as a sentence in their own right.

He groaned, he cried, he died.

My hand stroked his face, my hip stroked against his thigh.


Each part of the two sentences above could stand alone as a sentence. Using a comma instead of having two sentences binds the actions together and makes for an easier read.

Note: Be very careful doing this. Don't just stick a comma between two unconnected sentences. This is known as a comma splice and isn't good form.

e.g.  The project was doomed, I had to come up with a plan. (Wrong)

This is a pretty common mistake and needs to be watched for. A very similar error is the run on sentence, where you don't even slam a comma in

e.g. The project was doomed I had to come up with a plan.(Wrong)

If you really want to do this - slamming a semi-colon in can help or a connector such as , so

e.g   The project was doomed; I had to come up with a plan.
        The project was doomed, so I had to come up with a plan.


It is better to just leave them as two sentences in most cases though.

In the first sentence, writing it as, ĎHe groaned. He cried. He died.í actually has more dramatic impact. It is important to understand the drama created by the use of different forms of punctuation. Both ways are technically correct, yet they read differently.

Ok, lets look at another sort of compound. When you connect two independent clauses with a so, and, but, or, yet, for, etc Ė making a compound sentence

Iíve not finished that story yet, so I probably never will.

Iím tired of working, but Iím too poor to quit.


You can get more contentious sentences where there is a subtle difference in effect.

He wanted sex and she wanted cash.

He wanted sex, and she wanted cash.

That slight pause given by the comma in the second gives a definite emphasis on the second clause. Both are technically correct. Reading aloud is essential sometimes to fully appreciate the difference made by some commas.


Generally, where you have a connector such as and, or, but, etc, you donít need a comma.

He sat up and gave the angel a hard look.

We nodded our heads but none of us really agreed with what he said.

You could say that you are a poet or an unutterable idiot.

(Note, with the last one, put the comma in after poet and the insult has WAY more bite.)


Never underestimate the link between commas and breathing.  If you want to make something sound breathless, leave them out.

I grabbed my purse and my hat and my coat then changed my mind and got my other coat then remembered that Iíd forgot the dog and the baby and realised it was Saturday and I didnít have to go anywhere at all.

See what I mean?

There are all sorts of other cases to consider, but these are the main principles I think with compounds.

Qualifiers.

These are the commas between dependent and independent clauses. I know that starts all your barriers slamming down but it isnít really that difficult. All it is talking about is that the parts are connected.

Once weíve decided on the plot and the characters, then weíll decide on the genre.

Ďthen weíll decide on the genreí doesnít really stand on itís own Ė so itís dependent on the first part.  It is separate information. You can get qualifiers that restrict the first part.

I wanted to eat a ton of smarties, but only the blue ones.

Iíll go to the pictures with you, if you keep your hands in your pockets this time.

They walked along the ceiling, after each taking a pink pill.


They can also represent a digression from the main thread.

He took off his trousers, a particularly garish red and lime green pair, and waved them out of the coach window.

John, fresh from his bath, walked into the lounge and shocked his motherís sewing circle.

Even in this form they can be yet another direct qualification.

The most desirable, yet most distant, table in the place was occupied by a marmoset and his concubine.


In all these cases if you take out the middle bit the sentence would still make sense.

Note, if the inset bit IS directly relevant Ė donít use commas.

The men who were dressed in red were sent into the library.

A girl whose hair was on fire was refused entrance to the club.




Again, the qualifier can come at the start (adverbial phrases Ė but donít be scared by that)

From below, the demon could be heard singing Abba songs.

On his head, the gerbil started to tap dance.

Along the pier, a clown danced the tarantella with a pantomime horse.


Again there are exceptions to this

At sunrise the soldiers said their prayers and went over the top.

In the beginning there was the bucket.

On the stove the pot was bubbling.

You could use a comma in these, but it seems wrong. It is usually the case with a short beginning phrase that is strongly connected to the rest of the sentence. If in doubt, read it aloud. Quite often both ways are technically correct, so you have to assess the dramatic effect you are trying to achieve. (Yeah drama again. Iím a writer, not an editor. I LIKE drama.)

Ok, this next bit is a bit trickier to understand. If the beginning phrase is followed immediately by a verb Ė donít use a comma. Iíll underline the verb.

From the building descended a well-built man wearing a pan on his head.

Outside the toilet ran a stream of pink water.

From the roof jumped a frog of gigantic proportions.


Other places not to use a comma are where it breaks apart the sentence

The dusty red book, lay unread on the table.   (WRONG)

He whipped, the cream into a froth.  (WRONG)


Another area that creates confusion is with names or other tags for characters. Separate the beggars out with commas.


Bring me the towel, Frank, and liquidise the kittens.

Comrades, the time for revolution was quarter of an hour ago.

Friends, Pickles, Ferrymen, lend me your oars.

Ok, the last is strictly speaking using the comma as a list, which Iíll get to later. Itís a multi-purpose comma.

Also you can do the same thing to specialise something from a general class to a specific instance of that class.

Her friend, Henry Fields, was the conductor of the local orchestra.

A cat, Fragrant Nellie, sat on the winnerís podium.


Where Henry Fields is a specific friend of hers and Fragrant Nellie is a cat. You got that though, didnít you?


Lists

Iím not going to go into any great depth here. This is probably the least confusing use of commas. Separate the members of the list with a comma. Ok?

He entered the vast, silent, awe-inspiring library and farted.

Her coat was red, blue, pink, cerise and yellow but her knickers were missing.


Exclamations.

This isnít a major use of the comma but people do tend to get mixed up over it. Use the comma to separate out the initial exclamation.

Oh, donít tell me you forgot the baby again.

However, we must always remember to embezzle at least twenty percent.

Well, I think we got away with that Mr Fawkes.

Shit, I was supposed to do this in under a thousand words.



Ok, so there it is. My introductory guide to the comma. Iíve tried to approach it from a writerís perspective rather than an academic one. For the purists, I know Iíve lumped totally distinct cases together. My treatment of adverbial phrases is almost criminal and Iíve not gone into the seven different types of sentence structure and how the phrases, complements, objects, subjects and so on fit together. This was in the interests of not sending people to sleep.  ☺

Again, I donít claim to be an expert in this, and apologise for any mistakes. I've put this together while doing ten other things and haven't had the time to think out the examples as well as I could have. Feel free to correct my howlers. Perhaps it is a starting point for discussing the comma  that will help some people out. If so, Iím happy.


Chord

edit: poor compound example changed and note on comma splicing and run on sentences added.
« Last Edit: April 06, 2009, 08:35:34 PM by Chord »
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Offline ma100

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #1 on: April 06, 2009, 06:27:48 AM »
Chord you are a Little beauty. I will be copying and trying to defeat my beasts with this.. :-* :-*

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #2 on: April 06, 2009, 06:45:09 AM »
That's outstanding writing on punctuation and technique.  ;D

Wolfe

Offline fire-fly

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #3 on: April 06, 2009, 06:45:26 AM »
Good old Comma, a slippery little sucker indeed, this may help me as well, and I am no where near UK or USA.  ;) ;)
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Don't take life too seriously, none of us get out of it alive. >:D


Offline Chord

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #4 on: April 06, 2009, 06:47:42 AM »
Thanks guys. :) I reckon if I can sort the comma out, world peace is next on my list. ;D

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Offline fire-fly

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #5 on: April 06, 2009, 06:53:49 AM »
Ahhhh a member on the hunt for the Nobel Peace Prize ay. I love to see such ambition. The comma is definetely the place to start then.  ;D
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Offline bonitakale

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #6 on: April 06, 2009, 07:34:54 AM »

He groaned, he cried, he died.

I stroked his face, my hip rested against his thigh.




US here: The first is okay, because the clauses are so short, but the second looks like a comma splice to me, and would make me do a double take as a reader. I'd come to I stroked his face, my hip, and be expecting something else he stroked -- I stroked my face, his hip, the cat, and anything that would hold still to be stroked. Then I'd have to go back and read it again.

Maybe not in the UK, though.

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Offline Skip Slocum

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #7 on: April 06, 2009, 07:47:04 AM »
Thank you, Cord, bonitakale, Wolfe, now all I need to do is try and remember this lesson, of fine writing.
Skip :D

Offline ma100

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #8 on: April 06, 2009, 07:49:56 AM »
Steal it Skip. Copy and paste it into a safe file. ;D ;D

Offline Chord

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #9 on: April 06, 2009, 07:51:10 AM »
No, it's not a UK thing, just not a great example. I just wanted to show two sentences that could stand alone yet are directly connected. I don't quite agree that it's a comma splice but I do see your point.

A comma splice would be something like.

We couldn't finish the project, I had to come up with a plan.

I agree that it comes close  though. I think I had in mind something like ' I stroked his face, my hip brushing his thigh.' That doesn't really show what I wanted though so I jigged it a bit. ;D  Serves me right for being lazy. The essence is that there needs to be a common thread between the two clauses or you get a splice.

edit: Thanks Bonitake, I've modified the OP to reflect this and changed the example to a clearer one.

« Last Edit: April 06, 2009, 10:00:07 AM by Chord »
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Offline ma100

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #10 on: April 06, 2009, 11:01:45 AM »
And so you should. ;D ;D ;D

Thanks Chord, I really appreciate this post.

Offline Spell Chick

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #11 on: April 06, 2009, 11:12:50 AM »
Chord, this is brilliant.
Thanks.
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Offline Xerika

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #12 on: April 06, 2009, 06:01:50 PM »
Many thanks for this very useful summary, Chord.

I just have a couple of queries - not criticisms, I assure you.

With regard to compound sentences, my understanding is that the comma is included in Iíve not finished that story yet, so I probably never will because the second part of the sentence - I probably never will - could potentially stand on its own. On the other hand, the comma would be omitted in Iíve not finished that story yet and probably never will because probably never will could not stand independently. Sorry this is a bit garbled, but I just want to verify that I'm not the only one who's been working on this assumption.

I noticed that you cover 'run-on sentences' in your post. I've seen these referred to as if they were almost the work of the Devil and realised that I wasn't entirely sure what they were or why they were to be avoided at all costs. Any enlightenment would be most welcome.

I've put this together while doing ten other things and haven't had the time to think out the examples as well as I could have. Feel free to correct my howlers.

Well, since you ask, there's a wee typo in A girl whoís hair was on fire was refused entrance to the club. I call it a typo because I'm sure that's what it was. I'm not going to highlight it either because I'm not about to start teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.  ;D

P.S. Feel free to point out all the comma errors in my post.  ;D
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Offline Chord

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #13 on: April 06, 2009, 08:54:47 PM »
Quote
With regard to compound sentences, my understanding is that the comma is included in Iíve not finished that story yet, so I probably never will because the second part of the sentence - I probably never will - could potentially stand on its own. On the other hand, the comma would be omitted in Iíve not finished that story yet and probably never will because probably never will could not stand independently. Sorry this is a bit garbled, but I just want to verify that I'm not the only one who's been working on this assumption.

The second form lacks a subject in the 'probably never will' so isn't a clause as such. Which is just the same as you said but with the word 'subject' in. ;D So yep, I agree with you, but that is the reason. I think it would be classed as a phrase rather than a clause.

Quote
I noticed that you cover 'run-on sentences' in your post. I've seen these referred to as if they were almost the work of the Devil and realised that I wasn't entirely sure what they were or why they were to be avoided at all costs. Any enlightenment would be most welcome.

A run on is where you jam two sentences together for no good reason, without proper punctuation there.

He fell to the floor his head banged on the stone flags.

Clearly, there are two sentences there. They are over the same subject but that doesn't mean they belong together. It isn't evil really, just badly punctuated. As I said in the OP, there are a couple of ways to jam them together if you wish.

He fell to the floor and his head banged on the stone flags.
He fell to the floor; his head banged on the stone flags.


or the far more sensible

He fell to the floor. His head banged on the stone flags.


This is fairly blatant. You can get them more simply by skipping a comma/semi-colon etc.

Watch the cars driving by for ten minutes you will see at least one that is stolen.


Two complete sentences jammed into one. The more complex the sentence, the harder it can get to spot run ons.

Quote
Well, since you ask, there's a wee typo in A girl whoís hair was on fire was refused entrance to the club. I call it a typo because I'm sure that's what it was. I'm not going to highlight it either because I'm not about to start teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.  ;D

Well spotted. :) I've fixed it now. ;D I slag people off for making that mistake as well. LOL.
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Offline BrazinBox

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Re: Using the comma in anger
« Reply #14 on: April 06, 2009, 09:02:37 PM »
Thanks a lot!