Tuesday, June 5, 2012

To Comma or Not to Comma

Old School Letter
One of the most controversial areas of writing conventions is punctuation.  If you learned to punctuate in the old school days you probably go nuts every time you read a paper, a magazine of a book because the punctuation now seems to be a matter of opinion instead of rules.

That's because, well, I hate to break it to you, but punctuation actually is largely a matter of opinion.  Except that's not totally true.   We still for the most part follow rules of capitalization.  Proper nouns get initial caps, although that honor often goes to nouns that haven't earned it.  As in, the Captain walked into the room, when actually it was the captain who did the walking. 

We also use periods correctly, most of the time, although we seemed to throw them around a lot when they'd often serve no function, for instance in p.m. instead of pm, but in most cases they work just the way they should.  I'm quite fond of the period and will choose it most every time over the semi-colon (which I irrationally hate) and the colon (unless, you're using it to offset a subsequent series).  I think the dash and the period perform these functions very well.

I also can't wait for whom, the word, to disappear from the English language.  Rumor has it that it will happen soon.  Few people actually know how to use whom correctly and many times its sounds awkward even when it is used properly.   How about lay, lie, laid and lain.  I've never been able to keep that straight, an unfortunate lack for a romance writer.

But these are opinions, don't you know.   My opinions.  I think everyone should share them.  Honestly, not really, but sometimes I sure wish they would.   Have you ever gotten into a heated discussion with a critique partner, an agent or an editor about whether a certain passage needs a comma, a semi-colon or colon?  About whether the comma goes after the next to the last item in a series or not?  About whether to unfailingly use a comma in a compound sentence?  About whether semi-colons should separate the two halves of a compound sentence or whether a comma splice sometimes works just as well?

Okay, okay.  I know I'm getting carried away with examples.  But they show the wide variation of choices available to writers and they highlight the real problem with punctuation.  To a large degree it truly is a matter of personal choice.  The trouble with that is that most of us think ours is the right choice.  That only becomes a problem when your choice interferes with my choice.  For instance, have you ever had a copy editor totally tear apart your punctuation style.  Personally, I'm fond of the comma splice because it can create a mood setting rhythm.  I sometimes use very short sentences to create tense scenes.  Copy editors are often the worst in thinking it's their way or the highway.

The other one is contest judges.  Have you ever had your entry get knocked out of the running only because some judge decided you used wrong punctuation?  Even worse, you think everything they changed was wrong!

Okay, I made my point.  And the only reason I'm blogging about it is to expose how flexible the rules of punctuation are.  They change all the time and for various reasons.  For fiction writers, punctuation provides clarity.  More important, it control the pace at which your reader experiences your story.  And that's what really counts.  Is it clear?  Does it have impact?  If I can answer both those questions with a yes, then I think I've done a fine job even is someone out there doesn't like that I belong to the when in doubt, leave it out school of comma use. 

What rules of punctuation do you use?  What do you never fail to do?  What do you think is totally stupid? Have you ever had an argument with someone about punctuation?
Let us know.

And, while I'm here, let me tell you about the Indie Book Collective Free Par-Tay on June 13th and 14th.  Dozens of books, many from authors you know like Rebecca York and Stephanie Bond, will be participating.  Me, too, with SHADOW ON THE MOON, and if you haven't read it this will be an easy-on-your-pocketbook time to add it to your Kindle.  Stop by the website to register for the free Kindle and free gift cards giveaway. 

Connie Flynn


graceunderpressure said...

I, for one, adore commas! Okay, I like most punctuation, actually. Punctuation tells us how the author is trying to express his words to you. Where to breathe, what to emphasize - it all makes a _huge_ difference in the meaning of the passage. I am in favour of the Oxford comma (that goes after the penultimate item in a list). [How's that for a rockin' multisyllabic word?] :D Great post!

Anonymous said...

Punctuation? Just kidding. I don't use any style, just what I think feels and looks right. I leave the correcting to the copy editor. LOL. Great thought-provoking post Connie. :)

Connie Flynn said...

Your post is better that mine, Grace, and it's only a comment. I bow to a master.

Connie Flynn said...

Thought-provoking. How nice of you to say? I thought it might come across more like nagging. And I think your approach to punctuation is the right one. But then what do I know?

LilMissMolly said...

I love a good effective use of commas. More people should use them!

Connie Flynn said...

I laughed out loud. You sure know what you like. Personally, I like well placed commas, too, ones I put there to create a pause, but I like to stomp out those misplaced commas or the ones used when you have a short compound sentence.

I think we agree on this. Thanks for commenting.