Wadded paperIf you’re of a certain age, that song is going to be stuck in your head the rest of today. Deal with it.

I wish today to speak of commas. Lately, there seems to be a trend to get rid of them. We can probably blame texting. After all, the keyboard keys are so small that even those with the thinnest fingers will fat thumb a key. Autocorrect doesn’t exactly help. And voice to text? I worked a little bit with Dragon Naturally Speaking before I used voice-to-text regularly. Plus, during lockdown, I dictated nine books of a story arc. So, saying “comma” and “period” are nothing for me. It’s likely a major pain for everyone else.

And, of course, the days of 733t Speak are long over, where numbers and symbols made texting less of a chore when all you had to work with was a touchtone-style keyboard.  “r u serious?” is one of the more readable phrases.

That said, if you’re writing prose, word meant to be read on a website, on Kindle, on this wood-derived material called “paper,” you need to better punctuate.

But people seem to be making up their own rules about commas. Why? What are you going to do with that .4 seconds you saved by not hitting the comma key? You don’t even need to use shift!

It doesn’t help that editing has gotten sloppy lately. My news source of choice is the Associated Press, followed by Reuters. No agenda, no 24-hour news cycle to fill with professional blowhards for whom intentionally stupidity is part of their job description. (Wait. This isn’t the TS Hottle blog, is it? I digress.) And the venerable AP lets some whoppers slip by. And it’s not just news. Rolling Stone, espn.com, even ads for your favorite streaming service blow it. So, what’s a poor writer to do when those we count on as examples of good editing drop the ball?

I’m gonna help you out. Here are some simple rules (and a rant at the end) about commas.

  • Use commas to separate independent clauses. What’s an independent clause? Take a section of a sentence beginning with and, but, or, for, so, or yet. (Those are called conjunctions, kids.) Remove the conjunction. If the clause is a complete sentence on its own, you need a comma. If not, you don’t.
  • For an introductory clause, use a comma to set it off from the main part of the sentence.
  • Descriptive clauses, which occur in the middle of sentences, should begin and end with a comma. (Notice a pattern here?)
  • It is preferred you drop the word “that” from sentences when not using it as an article. It’s also important that you don’t replace “that” with a comma. 
    For example: 
    It’s preferred that you don’t use “that” in this sentence.
    It’s preferred you don’t use “that” in this sentence.
    You can use “that.” An editor will strike it if you do. But you must NEVER replace “that” with a comma. That would be bad. (See what I did there?)
  • Use commas to divide adjectives not logically joined together.
    The frequent, annoying misuse of commas drove TS to distraction.
  • Use commas to set off parts of a date or geographic units. 
    On October 10, 2022, TS published this blog post in Deer Park, Ohio, USA. (Note: The trailing comma is often ignored by editors, editing tools, and even Microsoft Word. However, you must offset the month and day from the year and the town from the state, province, or country. That part is ironclad.
  • The Oxford comma. It’s a given to use commas to set off a series of nouns (or phrases, but let’s go with nouns.) 
    One meme I saw said the Oxford comma is the difference between “I was attacked by two dogs, a shepherd and a boxer” and “I was attacked by two dogs, a shepherd, and a boxer.” The former is a bad day. The latter is a trip to the ER.

    I am militant about the Oxford comma. There is no legitimate reason not to use it, and I’m sorry, but Weird Al was wrong. (OTOH, that song was better than the original “Blurred Lines,” which set Marvin Gaye spinning in his grave.)
    That said, I will ask a client before beginning on a work. Some writers are anti-Oxford. They’re wrong, but I edit for the writer’s style, not mine. At the same time, let’s say you’re going to submit to, say, Aethon Books. Steve Beaulieu is going to get an IM before I even think about beginning. After all, he’s paying the writer, so, indirectly, he’d be paying me. Substitute any press in there outside the Big Four. They’re going to ignore whatever we do to a manuscript, anyway. 

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