Editing Workshop, 7: Commas

Extra commas.

I just copyedited a very good memoir that was seriously overburdened with commas. According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.” I have written about commas (and hyphens!) before, but thanks to this job I’ve got plenty of examples of unnecessary and even misleading commas in my head, so this seems a good time to write about them again.

Rest assured that it will not be the last time, and if you’ve got any comma questions or comments, please do use the contact form at the end to send them in.

The examples follow the structure of the original, but I’ve changed the words because quoting without permission from an as-yet-unpublished book is ethically dubious. Not to mention — I don’t want anyone to think less of an excellent book because the uncopyedited manuscript had too many commas in it.

When she arrived at the concert hall early, she discovered that the rest of us were early, too.

There’s a zombie “rule” (a rule that no matter how often it’s refuted keeps coming back from the dead) floating around that you must have a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence. Not only is it not required, sometimes it actually gets in the way: your eye pauses briefly before it gets to the end of the sentence. If you want that pause, by all means stet the comma. If you don’t, take it out.

“Too” doesn’t often show up at the beginning of a sentence, but when it does, you will almost certainly want a comma after it. Same goes for “also.” They generally link the sentence to the one preceding. This is often OK in informal writing, but it can come across as rushed or sloppy when you’re trying to make a good impression.

The comma after “early” in the example is a good idea. When an introductory phrase or subordinate clause is short, you can often get away without the comma — “When she arrived I was on my second beer” — but if there’s any chance that the phrase or clause might slide into the main clause, consider using a comma.

Once he’d read the street signs, and consulted the map, he pulled away from the curb.

We’re looking at the comma after “signs.” I could make a case for it if the author wanted a bit of a break between the reading and the consulting. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t. When I’m editing, I note what the writer does habitually. This writer inserted a comma before the conjunction “and” so often that I wondered if maybe he thought it was a rule, like that comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.

A very strong convention — “rule,” if you will — is to use a comma before any conjunction that joins two independent clauses. This convention makes enough sense that the burden is on me or the writer to show that it’s not necessary, for instance when the two clauses are very short: “I got home from work and we sat down to dinner.”

I deleted the comma after “signs” but kept the one after “map,” which ends a rather long introductory subordinate clause.

After she entered the hall, so many people swarmed around her, as she moved toward the podium, that we couldn’t see her at all.

Notice the clause set off with commas in the middle of the main clause? Those commas make the clause almost parenthetical, meaning that you could omit it without losing anything. “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all” does make perfect sense, but we no longer see the subject moving toward a podium. In other words, we’ve lost something. I deleted both commas.

When I’m copyediting, I want to improve the sentence as unobtrusively as possible. If this were my own sentence, I might revise with a heavier hand, perhaps “After she entered the hall and moved toward the podium . . .” Or maybe “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all as she moved toward the podium”? Or maybe not. As is so often the case, there are several options, equally correct but somewhat different in nuance, emphasis, and/or cadence. Unless there’s a compelling reaason to do otherwise, I stick as close to the author’s version as I can.

As much planning as we did, to my way of thinking, we should have done more.

Here’s another thing to watch for when you come across a phrase or clause set off by commas in the middle of a sentence. The question here is about what half of the sentence “to my way of thinking” belongs with: “As much planning as we did to my way of thinking . . .” or “. . . to my way of thinking we should have done more.” Reading along, I skidded to a halt to sort this out. Based on both context and the sentence itself, I was pretty sure that the latter was intended, so I deleted the comma after “thinking” to avoid separating phrase from clause.

Mind you, if the whole sentence were “To my way of thinking, we should have done more,” that comma would have been unexceptional — not required, but not a problem either. In the middle of a complex sentence, however, it creates enough ambiguity to make a reader pause. In some cases, such commas or the lack thereof can even create serious confusion about the meaning of the sentence.

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There’s plenty more to be said about commas, but I think this is enough for one post. Have you got a comma question, or a sentence that needs a second look, or one you successfully sorted out? Use this contact form to send it in, and I’ll work it into a future blog post — or reply privately if you prefer.

 

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