Friday, May 4, 2012

Writing 101: How to Use Commas

Seems a little silly, doesn't it? Using commas is as basic as learning the alphabet, and every writer has peppered them into their work at some point. But honestly, I'm not trying to waste your time. I'm trying to help, because in the vast majority of indie books I've read I have learned something: many indie writers don't know how to use commas correctly. You might think you've got a firm grasp on them, roll your eyes at today's lesson and move on to greener tip-giving pastures. I beg you not to do so, especially if you know that I've read your book in the past. Because chances are, you've already made more than one unforgivable error in your ebook.

What Role Do Commas Play?

If you're going to use commas, you ought to know what they represent. You can't just shake up a bag of commas and throw them into your work at will. They're used to create natural separation and pauses in the middle of sentences, and they're an important part of speech. I'm using them now to link related thoughts and split up different phrases, because otherwise everything I'm writing might read as flat and monotone. 

Speaking Names

There seems to be some confusion about where to include commas when one character is speaking to another. Let's clear that up. Any time any character addresses any other by name -- and it can be a nickname, a proper name, a pet name, any kind of name -- that name must be prefaced and ended with a comma unless the name starts the sentence or ends a sentence. Examples:

"Susan, did you get that book?"

"Did you get that book, Susan?" 

"About that book, Susan, did you get it?"

Commas before and after, every single time unless the name starts or ends the sentence. You do not need to follow this rule if the character is talking about another character, only if they are talking to the character. Examples:

"Did Susan get that book?"

"That book I told her about, did Susan get it?"

Serial Commas

It's easy to get confused when using serial commas. In the traditional AP style guide and in most journalism, serial commas are used in a very specific way -- they are not used before the word and. Examples:

The mugger was tall, thin and grey-haired. 

She was wearing a pink, ripped and baggy pair of overalls. 

However, you are writing a book. You are not writing in traditional AP style (and you should not be if you are, because prose is different). Therefore, you can use serial commas before and if that is your desire. In book-writing, either way is correct. You can also eliminate and entirely if the sentence still reads well without it. Examples:

The mugger was tall, thin, and grey-haired. 

She was wearing a pink, ripped, baggy pair of overalls.


It's a little tricky to know where to put your commas when using conjunctions (linking words). What's a conjunction? Glad you asked: among others, they include for, and, but, or, because. In most cases when you're using basic conjunctions, the comma goes before the conjunction. Examples:

She asked me to move, and then scooted around the chair. 

He was smiling at me, but it didn't look very sincere.

Either I was crazy, or the commas were totally in the wrong places.

Mastering Commas

Once you learn the specific rules of comma usage, your book will flow more smoothly and look much better -- and you'll actually look like you know what you're doing to your readers. There are lots of ways to use commas, and these are only a few of them. Always read over what you've written, commas and all, and "say" the words to yourself in your mind. Pause at every comma, just for half a second or so, and "listen" to the sound of those words. If you're pausing in the wrong place, or the writing sounds jerky, you've got your commas in the wrong places. Fix them!

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