When I offer to critique another writer’s work, I warn him or her that I once worked as a copy editor and generally perform a detailed read. And I do mean detailed. Bless them, but some brave souls have still agreed to let me read their stories.
Some people are gifted with seeing the BIG picture. Me? I notice the small stuff. Yup. Right down to the commas–or missing commas as the case may be. I can’t help it.
Call me the Punctuation Police or a Grammar Geek, and I won’t argue with you. My Internal Editor is alive and well–and kinda hung up on what some would call minutia.
Recently, I judged some contest entries, and I noticed the same issue in all three. It’s nothing that would keep an agent from offering representation or an editor from offering a contract, but I’ll point it out because I want to know what you think.
All three entries included a number of compound sentences in which there were no commas. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Why did I notice? Yeah, because I’m the Diva of Details. But also because each time I came across one of those sentences, I was pulled out of the story, which is something a writer doesn’t want to do.
Did I mark the entrants down for this seemingly insignificant issue. Nope. What I did do was wonder if they even realized there was supposed to be a comma.
I remember my English teachers drilling such information into me, and being the people pleasing student I was, I complied.
In a nutshell, here’s the deal. If one constructs a compound sentence, a comma is required before the conjunction such as and, but, or, nor, or so. (Just as a refresher, in a compound sentence, two complete sentences are joined by a conjunction.) Here’s a sample.
I dashed into the nearest Starbucks, and I bought a venti Passion Fruit tea.
More and more, I’m seeing the comma omitted, even in published works.
I checked my trusty Merriam-Webster Pocket Guide to Punctuation to see what it had to say about leaving out commas in compound sentences and found, “When one of both of the clauses are short or closely related in meaning, the comma is often omitted.” Following is the example in the book:
They said good-bye and everyone hugged.
There is one more exception to the rule listed. “If commas set off another phrase that modifies the whole sentence, the comma between main clauses is often omitted.” Here’s the example given in the book:
Six thousand years aao, the top of the volcano blew off in a a series of powerful eruptions and the the sides collapsed into the middle.
Two words struck me: is often. That leads me to believe the writer does have some choice.
I’ve made mine. Since I write historicals, I use the commas in most cases because those living in my period would have. Using the comma is a subtle way of adding a historical feel to my writing.
There are times when I will leave the comma out of a compound sentence for effect. One time, my heroine’s nine-year-old daughter was shooting off some reasons for wanting to attend a parade rapid fire, and I opted not to use commas to show that she wasn’t taking any breaths.
If I were writing contemporary stories, I might be more inclined to leave out the comma on occasion, especially in situations such as those listed above.
Ultimately, the decision regarding comma usage will be determined by a writer’s publishing house staff.
• • • • •
I wanna know . . .
Have you ever stopped to think about commas in compound sentences?
If you have, do you have a preferred way of handling them in your stories?
Do you even notice such things when you’re reading, or are you able to silence your Internal Editor more easily than I am? 🙂