WoW: Commas and Compound Sentence Confusion

Welcome to Wordsmithing on Wednesdays, where we delve into details of the writing craft.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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? 🙂

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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9 Responses to WoW: Commas and Compound Sentence Confusion

  1. This was a very good post. I sometimes omit commas if I feel it makes sense, like your breathless example, and sometimes I’ll add one where it isn’t really correct to show a pause. The examples given above were perfect and answered questions I’d been wondering about. Specifically, leaving out the comma with very short clauses or when another phrase if offset in the sentence. Perfect examples.

    Would you care to tackle “and then”? This is the one that drives me nuts. I think I simply have too many “thens” in my manuscripts, but I get so frustrated trying to figure ways around using “then”. “And” isn’t appropriate at times. For instance:

    She cleaned the kitchen, and then went to bed.

    I really want to say:

    She cleaned the kitchen and went to bed. (Which grammarians will say is impossible, since you can’t do both at once).

    Or…

    She cleaned the kitchen then went to bed.
    (Guess I have to use the comma before “then” and they really prefer you to add “and” before “then” but I don’t want to. I’d love some discussion on “then” WITHOUT “and”.

    Sometimes I write short sentences, in places of more action, but a lot of times it feels too choppy if I don’t connect the sentences. For example:

    She cleaned the kitchen. She went to bed.
    (This sounds horrible, unless you’re using it purposely to show a state of mind).

    So therefore, I have to connect the sentences or figure a way to rewrite.

    Do you feel the rules can be relaxed in romance writing? Can we sometimes use “and” where it’s not physically possible to do those two things at once? I’d love some of your thoughts here.

  2. I am forever reading sentences; compound or otherwise. This begs the question. When to use the semi-colon instead of just the comma. In most cases the comma has replaced the semi-colon; or has it?

    I don’t get distracted as much as you, but I was told by a very good reader that she is taken out of the story with bad spelling and blatant errors in grammar, so I am extra careful with what I send.

    Thanks … helpful post as always.

  3. LoRee Peery says:

    I do think about commas, especially when I revise. Each time a compound sentence has a conjunction. Reading aloud often tells me whether to use one or not. When reading for pleasure, I let them slide. While critiquing, however, I do consider whether to suggest one or not. Most of the time, I suggest adding one. Good post.

  4. Oooh, I LOVE commas. So, in my case, I’d probably use more than I need to. For example, I’ve already used four in this comment 😀

    I notice the lack of commas in compound sentences a lot and I’m always inserting them if I’m critiquing something. You’re absolutely right, it does take you out of the story and then you have to go back and read that paragraph or sentence again.

  5. I knew I liked you, Keli. I get stuck in the details too, and I’ve noticed this same thing. Very interesting to see those exceptions.

  6. I’m from the generation that uses commas where they belong. Nevertheless, I try to keep my writing contemporary. It seems that overuse of commas is not a good thing these days. On the other hand, there are places where the sentence construction demands use of the comma. One case would be a compound sentence, as you say. Again, short compound sentences may pass without the comma. I agree definitely with placing a comma if leaving it out makes the reader stumble.

  7. Sherrinda says:

    I struggle with commas. I usually want to use them, but have heard about the omission at times, and that really confused me! lol I suppose it would be easiest just to keep them all the time, huh?

    (I love these teaching posts, Keli! Your examples really make it stick in my head.)

  8. Susan Mason says:

    Hi Keli,

    I am a bit of a comma freak, too! When I critique, I’m always adding them in. But I do sometimes get muddled over the rules. And lots of times, I forget them in a compound sentence.

    Thanks for the clarification!

    Sue

  9. This post caught my eye. During recent revisions, I noticed that I often use a phrase to begin a sentence (as I just did), to define the time or place of what follows. If the sentence which follows has other commas, and the introductory phrase is brief, I tend to omit a comma after the phrase. My understanding of comma rules is that I can get away with this if the introductory phrase is sufficiently brief. But I’m not good at brevity, and suspect I will have numerous comma corrections coming when a pro gets a hold of my work.

    I appreciate this post. Well placed commas do prevent the reader’s eye from stumbling.

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