Monday, June 30, 2014

The Missing Comma--More Important Than You Might Think

Today's post may not be the most exciting thing you'll read this week but it could be of some help when you write. And that's exactly the reason I want to address one little punctuation mark. The comma!

When I critique submissions at my online writer's group, I frequently see one place that many people forget to use a comma. The missing comma also stands out when I read a book and makes me wonder how an editor missed it. Of course, since so many of the books we read today are self-published, it's not surprising that a few things get overlooked.

Am I a grammar nut? Well maybe but I also feel that we have grammar rules for a reason. Basically, they help a reader know where to pause, what's a question, when one sentence ends and another begins and more. They're like road signs--they guide us even though we're not always completely aware of it. It becomes a subconscious noting rather than the specific reading of each one.

The comma that is often missing is the one that separates an introductory phrase or clause from the main sentence. The main body of the sentence can stand alone if there is no intro phrase which adds information but is not totally necessary. It's something writers use a lot so they should know the rule and practice it.

If you try to read this sentence aloud that has a long intro phrase or clause without a comma between it and the main part of the sentence, you'd run out of breath. That comma sets the intro section apart and also gives you that slight pause. Take a look at the sentences below. A. is without the comma and B has it. Read the sentences out loud. Does having the comma give you a natural pause? Does it make reading the sentence easier?

A.  Before she put the children to bed Mary filled the dishwasher and wiped off the counter.
B.  Before she put the children to bed, Mary filled the dishwasher and wiped off the counter.

A.  When the blazing sunset filled the horizon Tom drove faster.
B.  When the blazing sunset filled the horizon, Tom drove faster.

A.  After four more mistakes John threw his hands up in utter disgust.
B.  After four more mistakes, John threw his hands up in utter disgust.

A.  Giving a dollar to the organ grinder Millie hurried past the man and his monkey.
B.  Giving a dollar to the organ grinder, Millie Hurried past the man and his monkey.

Can the part of the sentence that comes after the comma stand alone? Can the part of the sentence that comes before the comma stand alone? Read it up to the comma and ask yourself if it makes sense. If you read only that part of the sentence, the next thought you should have is then what? 

As you read this week, be aware of the intro phrases and clauses and check to see if the writer used the comma or not.

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