Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Comma, A Fierce Creature

I have to admit, one of the things I struggle most, are commas. I'm even not sure if the commas in the sentence before are correct. In German, comma rules are quite clear and you usually have much more commas than in English. When writing, I probably still have these rules in the back of my head. 

Having said that, I can't put enough emphasize on the importance of having the commas right. On the one hand it is pure writer's honor to have the will to get it right. But on the other hand, in not seldom cases, the comma is crucial for the meaning of the sentence. I love the example that I found on the web:

Let's eat, Grandpa. 
Let's eat Grandpa.

Browsing through the web, I found the following rules on different sites:

Rule 1
Three or more words or phrases are separated by a comma.

Example: Jack brought wine, cheese, and bread.

This is the same in German, where it is called itemization, but there is the is already my first confusion. That last comma is new to me. Where I come from, the "and" replaces the comma. Ok, point taken, lessons learned.

Rule 2
Commas separate independent clauses, if joint by and, but, or, nor, so, yet, or for.

Example: I went to school, but my brother remained sick at home.

Both clauses could stay independently. I went to school. My brother remained sick at home. If connected with the word but, a comma is required.

Here is another difference I had to learn. In German, you can separate any two independent clauses without the need for a coordinating conjunction. "I was sick at home, the weather was nice"is a perfectly correct sentence in German, however, wrong in English. An extreme example is the experimental novella "The Assignment" by Friedrich Durenmatt. The novella is written in 24 sentences, of which most go over several pages, using this rule a lot (the novella is still 129 pages long).

Rule 3 
Between an introductory clause and the main clause.

Example: While I am writing, my father is watching the game.

In difference to the rule above, the term "While I am writing" can't stand alone.

Rule 4
Separate an inserted clause at the beginning and the end. This rule also applies to inserted names or titles, when you address somebody as well as for interruptors, such as however or therefore.

Examples: You may have notices, occasionally you can be quite observant, I am on the phone right now. You may have notices, boss, I am on the phone right now. In your opinion, professor, what should we do? I would, however, go live with the product right now.

The main clauses, can exist without the inserted clause, e.g. "You may have noticed, I am on the phone right now". 

Rule 4a
The exception to above rule is, that the inserted clause or phrase is not essential, i.E. it is not necessary to clarify the meaning of the sentence. If it is essential, there shall no commas be used.

Example: The short story you submitted to the New York publisher go accepted.

The inserted part " submitted to the New York publisher..." is grammatically not necessary for the sentence, but it is essential for its meaning.

This is another area I struggle a lot. In German, every subordinate clause is separated from the main clause - irrespective if it is essential or not. I would have placed commas at the beginning and the end.

Rule 6
To separate two or more adjectives that describe a noun. This comma replaces an and. Hence, if the to adjectives are opposites, they have to be connected with a but.

Example: He was a smart, disciplined writer. 

He was a smart but lazy writer. He was a smart, lazy writer - this doesn't work.

Rule 7
Commas are also used to separate dialog tags from the dialog part. I already laid that out in my first dialog blog post in more detail.

Example: I said, "Forget about it." "I can't," he replied.

Now, here is the question; what to do when it is a question? "Forget about what," she asked, "Forget about what?" she said, or "Forget about what?," she said. The last one would be very odd, but with the first two options I'm still struggling. Is there an English master out there who could help me with this?

Rule 8
To separate the tag questions.

Example: I can't do that, can I? I look good, don't I?

Rule 9
Use commas in order to separate introductory words or clauses (including participial, long prepositional, or infinitive phrases, subordinate clauses.

Examples: Yes, I will. However, we shouldn't leave now. Well, who would? Still wearing her pajama, Susan opened the door. Running carefully, still feeling the pain in his leg, Tom tried to catch the train.

Rule 10
Commas are also used in order to parts that express contrast.

Example: It was your fault, not mine.

Rule 11, the elastic clause
Use a comma whenever necessary in order to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

Example: Inside the dog was barking vs. inside, the dog was barking. 

Well, thank you very much for this rule. This is probably one of the main reasons why I might place to many commas. 

So, if you read through my posts and I find a comma mistake, you can either smile and think, well pal, still not there yet, or just send me an e-mail and point it out. 

Happy comma placing

Your writer in a foreign land

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