Other teachers at my junior high school used new English textbooks, but in Mr. B.’s classroom the grammar books were over twenty years old and well-worn. Our seventh-grade English teacher, an older gent, had a well-deserved reputation for volatility. Any student who could not recite the helping verbs in under four seconds had to be prepared for sarcastic derision. Anyway, Mr. B. taught me grammar and punctuation.

Fix it later

He might have been tough, but you can expect New York publishers to be tougher. They won’t yell at you. Worse, they’ll ignore you.

After finishing a novel’s first draft, one writer recently said, “I’ll let the publishers unkink all the kinks.” Indeed, a book publisher will hammer—or should I be gentler and say massage?—your manuscript into impeccable shape, but a manuscript must pass through many hands before it reaches a copy editor’s desk. It seems unwise for prospective book authors to count on others to ignore their mistakes.

Fix it now

Don’t expect to get e.e. cummings’ editor. Agents, editors or readers cannot be reliably counted upon to perceive the beauty beyond the haze. Casual punctuation is perceived as sloppy and unprofessional, and there’s no time like the present to get your book in shape.

Let’s start with commas

This sentence-breaking punctuation is too often misused and abused. While there are certainly more comma rules than what follows, these 17 rules focus on common danger zones for comma confusion.

1. When addressing someone directly by title or name, set that off with a comma.

“Back row monitors, retrieve the red reading book.”
“Did you lose your hall pass, Mr. Nielsen?”

2. If “but” separates two independent clauses, add a comma.

Other teachers used new textbooks, but in Mr. B.’s classroom the grammar books were old and well-worn.

The two independent clauses in the sentence above can each stand on their own. You could chop this sentence in half; the resulting sentences would be fine. In such instances, add commas.

3. If that same “but” does not bring together two separate clauses, commas become unnecessary.

NO: Mr. B. was frightening, but effective.
YES: Mr. B. was frightening but effective.
NO: The past is, but a memory.
YES: The past is but a memory.

4. When “and” links two independent clauses, put a comma before it.

“Ands” are like “buts.” If two clauses in a sentence can each stand on their own, these independent clauses should be separated by a comma.

His eyes were yellow, and his hands shook.
I was a great reader, and the school library’s shelves held countless unread volumes.

5. If listing two things that cannot stand on their own or make a separate sentence, don’t use a comma.

She was smart and sassy.
Shelli was in his class and later cared for elephants at the city zoo.

6. Adjectives appearing in a list and modifying the same noun to an equal degree should be separated by commas.

“Modifying to an equal degree” means a sentence’s adjectives “coordinate.” One way to check if a sentence’s adjectives are coordinate is to switch their order around. If that sentence still sounds natural, its listed adjectives are coordinate.

NO: He was a bold rebellious curious man.
YES: He was a bold, rebellious, curious man.
YES: He was a rebellious, curious, bold man. (Swapping the order of the adjectives works fine. The adjectives are coordinate and should have commas.)

7. Don’t separate multiple adjectives with a comma if they are not coordinate.

Still unsure what is coordinate? Again, swap the order of the adjectives. If the sentence sounds weird after doing that, these adjectives are not coordinate. Forget using commas

NO: “The Communists want dumb, American children!”
NO: “The Communists want American dumb children!” (Swapping the order of the adjectives doesn’t work.)
YES: “The Communists want dumb American children!”

8. In a sentence listing more than two separate elements, the serial comma is optional.

There’s a blazing hot controversy in the kingdom of the grammatical nerds over the serial comma—ahem, Oxford comma—in lists, and whether or not commas should be added after the penultimate element. Which of these two is correct?

  1. I took an IQ test, drew a political cartoon, and maintained absolute silence during study hall.
  2. I took an IQ test, drew a political cartoon and maintained absolute silence during study hall.

Answer: Both are acceptable, though the Chicago Manual of Style recommends the serial comma in the first example. Also, now and again, you might need that last Oxford comma to keep things clear and separate:

Mr. B. discussed his family, Joseph Stalin and Ho Chi Minh. (NO)
Mr. B. discussed his family, Joseph Stalin, and Ho Chi Minh. (MUCH BETTER)

The above conjunctions—but, and—separate two independent clauses. Also doing that job are: for, or, nor, so, yet.

9. Don’t add a comma if you need a semicolon to get the job done.

One way to connect two independent clauses is with a semicolon; it’s made of sterner stuff than the modest comma. A comma doesn’t work here.

NO: “You are dumb, you are playing into the Communists’ hands.”
YES: “You are dumb, and you are playing into the Communists’ hands.”
YES: “You are dumb; you are playing into the Communists’ hands.”

Warning: Don’t go overboard with semicolons. The lack of straightforward sentences becomes noticeable.

10. If dialogue ends in a question or exclamation point, there’s no need for a comma before identifying the speaker.

NO: “Does a comma belong here?”, I asked.
YES: “Does a comma belong here?” I asked.
NO: “Go to the principal’s office now!”, he bellowed.
YES: “Go to the principal’s office now!” he bellowed.

11. In American English usage, commas always go before closing quotation marks.

YES: “Do this,” I said.
NO: “Brits are screwy”, he said.

12. A comma before “too” is optional.

Give yourself a break here. This is an easy one. Do what you want. It’s all good.

Our biology teacher was a little weird, too.
Our biology teacher was a little weird too.
Our biology teacher, too, was a little weird.
Our biology teacher too was a little weird.

13. Nonrestrictive clauses should be bracketed by commas.

That sounds scary but it’s not so hard. Words, phrases or clauses that break up a sentence’s flow are nonrestrictive clauses. They might add, to a reader’s delight, tone or feeling or emphasis. You may identify these Interrupters if the sentence surrounding them could do just fine without them. Isolate these Interrupters with commas.

Our teacher, who was already tense, got teary-eyed as he read a poem on Memorial Day.
The last day of the school year, finally, arrived in June.

14. Don’t separate a restrictive clause with commas.

If a descriptive clause is essential to a sentence’s meaning, that is a restrictive clause. The sentence needs it. It makes no sense without it. Don’t separate this clause with commas.

NO: The book, that changed my way of thinking, was on the banned books list.
YES: The book that changed my way of thinking was on the banned books list.
NO: He maintained, unfailingly, these standards over the years.
YES: He maintained unfailingly these standards over the years.

15. Introductory phrases functioning as an adjective are normally followed by commas.

Loitering in the hallway, the boys passed around the novel Jaws because Chapter Eight was racy.
Forever changed, I would always remember my helping verbs.

16. When an adverb phrase starts a sentence, it’s often followed by a comma.

In one’s life, people come and go.
With a nationalistic tone, he held forth on what was meaningful to him.

17. But if an adverb phrase is short (say, one to four words), you can skip the comma. Or not. This one’s up to you.

Anyway, Mr. B. taught me grammar and punctuation.
Later I became a book editor.

 

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