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An Unkindness of COMMAS. Options · View
Posted: Monday, February 14, 2011 4:49:17 PM

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Joined: 2/8/2011
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Location: The suburbs.
I SUCK at commas big-time. I tend to pull a "Mark Twain"; I sprinkle them in…wherever to break up the monotony of the sentence. This article was my attempt to hammer the rules into my brain.

An Unkindness of COMMAS

What the heck are Commas for, anyway?
Besides abusing the sanity of the writer, the comma exists to help readers organize information in a sentence. It makes all the stuff the author is trying to say easier to swallow. Without them, sentence bits and pieces collide into one another causing confusion; rather like a train-wreck, though not nearly as exciting.

Just in case you’d like to know who made up all these comma rules, I got most of them from Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” the grammar handbook used by every publishing house in America, and a few overseas. The rest came from my editors.

To get a good idea of how commas work, let's take a look at what they are supposed to do -- and some major screw-ups.

Doing it RIGHT
1. Commas separate items in a series.

The werewolf had fleas, a couple of ticks, and a very slight case of mange.

2. Commas separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so...,) and the comma goes IN FRONT of the word -- not behind it!

Several vampires were writhing on the dance floor, and a dozen more were scattered about the bar.

3. Commas set off introductory clauses and phrases.

When the gargoyle crashed through the plate glass window, the housewife handed him the broom to clean up his mess.

4. Commas set off non-restrictive (non-essential) clauses, phrases, and modifiers from the rest of the sentence.

a) The restrictive (essential) clause:

Two fallen angels, who frequently dangled from the church tower, were throwing rotten tomatoes at the gargoyles.

a) Non-restrictive (non-essential) clause:

Chateau Dracula, located in the green hills of Tuscany, hosted the vampire prince’s inauguration.

5. Commas separate descriptive modifiers of equal rank. If you can use your adjectives interchangeably and can put in an "and" between them, put the comma there.

The Court simply could not predict the next activity of the fickle, explosive vampire queen.

6. Commas set off parenthetical expressions. (Stuff that could be put in parentheses, but isn’t.)

The werewolf council members, you may recall, voted themselves a thirty-five percent pay increase last year.

7. Commas are used when the absence of a pause can cause confusion.

For the ghosts that haunted the chateau, moving the chairs around in the dining room was exhausting work.

8. Commas are used to set off participle phrases that modify some part of the independent clause.

The Vampire Court adjourned, having successfully defeated the bill that would have taxed imported medical blood.

Doing it WRONG
1. DON’T use a comma to separate two independent clauses WITHOUT a coordinating conjunction. Doing this makes a “comma splice.”

WRONG: The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent, the werewolf population rate stayed constant.

a. Instead of a Comma, try using a semicolon(;):

The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent; the werewolf population rate stayed constant.

b. Instead of a Comma, try using a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so...,) with a comma BEFORE it:

The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent, but the werewolf population rate stayed constant.

2. DON'T use a comma to introduce a subordinate clause. (Putting a comma before the word "because" is one of the biggest offenders.)

The vampire princess decided to visit the protest site because she needed a first hand report.

The vampire princess decided to visit the protest site (subordinate clause -- > because she needed a first hand report.

But...! If the subordinate clause is being used to introduce the sentence, a comma does go at the end of the introductory phrase.

Because she needed a firsthand report, the vampire princess decided to visit the protest site.

3. DON'T use a comma to separate a noun or pronoun from its reflexive (myself, himself, herself).

The werewolf king himself will discipline the pack.

4. DON'T use a comma between a word and a phrase to create a "false series."

Example of a confusing False Series:

The archeologists discovered seven bodies, six medieval knights, and one court jester.
(WOW! That’s a lot of bodies!)

In proper perspective using an m-dash:

The archeologists discovered seven bodies -- six medieval knights, and one court jester.

5. DON'T use a comma IN FRONT of a partial quotation.

The candidate for court wizard charged that the incumbent was "a charlatan of the lowest order."

BUT...! If the quotation is a full sentence, you DO use a comma –- in front of it:

The incumbent for court wizard asked, "How would you like to spend the rest of your existence as a leaky pot?"

Exercises: Where do the following sentences need commas?
(This ISN’T an assignment, you are Not expected to turn in your answers!)


1. Teratology the study of deformities derives its name from the Greek word for monster.

2. Hearing the wolf howl caused Zach to look up in anticipation and delight.

3. Gothic music has a distinctly European sound yet it has often received more attention in Tokyo than in Paris.

4. All roads may lead to Rome but the vampire and his designated victim got hopelessly lost trying to drive there from Naples.

5. Dracula Tower one of the finest examples of soaring art deco yet gothic architecture in America is located in New York New York.

6. The most hard working of all the haunts in the chateau she despaired when others received substantially higher praise.

7. You know I can't tolerate such behavior Vladimir.

8. Exhausted and penniless the vampire stared at the brightly lit interior imagining a warm fire a bed with clean white linens and a willing Reubenesque victim wearing nothing but handcuffs and a smile.

9. It was a charming older home whose medieval decor enhanced its gothic character.

For more on Commas, see:
COMMAS - The (Not-So) Quick & Dirty Guide
by Erin Mullarkey, editor for Loose-Id books:


DISCLAIMER: As with all advice, take what you can use and throw out the rest. As a multi-published author, I have been taught some fairly rigid rules on what is publishable and what is not. If my rather straight-laced (and occasionally snotty,) advice does not suit your creative style, by all means, IGNORE IT.

Morgan Hawke
Purveyor of fine Smut.
DarkErotica.Net ~ My Website
DarkErotica Blog ~ My Writers' blog

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
Albert Einstein

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