Monday Classroom: Those squiggly little bast—um, The Comma

The comma causes more torn out hair and gnashed teeth. You may remember what I told you in a post below, Kat’s Picky Sh*t, how I see commas as pauses and as grouper-togetherers.

I’m not the perfect Comma Momma (teeheehee), so I do invite you to use the links below to learn allllllllll about those tiny little trouble-makers. Because, really, there is simply too much information about that little teeny bitty itty squiggle than I can place here in one post without tearing out my own hair. In fact, that teeny bitty itty squiggle’s size is deceiving, for it makes Big Arse Trouble for so many out there, and not only writers.

Thing is, folks, it really is not so difficult once you Pay Attention to what you are writing and how the sentence “flows” and the rhythm of your words/sentences. I’ve written those two words before: Pay Attention. Because when you do, you learn. As I write this post, I am using commas without thinking about it. If this were my novel, I’d go in and remove some of my commas to make sure everything sings along musically to where there are not a lot of choppy sentences that leave the reader’s brain squeezing–or maybe I just want to leave the reader a bit breathless. When you Pay Attention, you begin to see how the comma interacts with your work. How the comma sets things off. How the comma groups things together and/or separates them. How it considers the natural pause—where you take that bit of a hitch of a breath after an introductory phrase.

Once you have a basic idea/knowledge of comma use, feel free to play around with it.

Sometimes I leave out commas where Grammar says they belong because I want to keep the sentence moving along without any pauses as if one is talking all at once and does not pause even to take a breath because they are in OMG OMG OMG mode *gasp for air* . . . folks, use this sparingly or else your readers’ eyes may fall out and follow someone to the door, and in fact, their eyes may not return for many a week because you simply exhausted them and they needed a long long vacation and I think I am doing it again, oh dear! *Eyes falling out of my head and traveling to the door, suitcase in hand (hand? Do eyes have hands? Well, if we’re dropping them out of their sockets and giving them a suitcase, guess they best.).*

Consider the sentence above as an example of a pause.

(Introduction) Once you have a basic idea/knowledge of comma use (a natural pause) feel free to play around with it.

Now read that sentence aloud with and without the comma and decide for yourself what happens:

Once you have a basic idea/knowledge of comma use feel free to play around with it—does saying this aloud without a pause make you feel rushed or a bit breathless?

Once you have a basic idea/knowledge of comma use, feel free to play around with it—does the natural pause here give you a chance to hitch in a breath?

If you think, “Well I like both ways.” Fine, go ye to write it how it works for you! I tell you this, though: when I’m reading something that doesn’t have commas where I like them to be, I insert them myself. Yeah! I do! Ha! You can’t escape my Comma-ndo! Alternatively, if you place a comma where I do not like it, I pluck it off the page and pinch off its wittle head (okay, now I feel bad. I won’t pinch off its wittle head. But I’ll do something! Yeah . . . something. . . huhn.).

Though, again, there are times I leave out commas because I want the sentence to move along without a pause. I don’t want the sentence to be broken up or choppy. But when I catch myself pausing after that “introduction,” I add a comma. Because. “Because whyyyyy, Kat?” Because I said so, that’s why.

The comma separates incomplete sentences—another form of a “pause” – like a parentheses.

Kathryn has, and always has had, a tiny pea-head. Kathryn has (pause to say/qualify: and always will have) a tiny pea-head.

Kathryn has—that’s an incomplete sentence that is separated by “and always has had” and then another incomplete sentence “a tiny pea-head” – I paused in the middle of those two phrases to tell you something else. I used commas to pause. Bless my wittle tiny pea-headed brain.

What you don’t want to do is go sticking commas everywhere willy nilly. Those commas, small as they may be, will chop up your sentence and make them read stoooopid. Do you want choppy stoooopid sentences? Of course not! I’d rather see fewer commas than a litter of them crawling around all over the page mewling and making a mess all over creation. Listen to the rhythm of your words/the language. Listen for those pauses. Those parenthetical pauses. Those introductory phrases that then lead to a little hitch of breath before going on to the next part of the sentence. That’s where the comma goes.

Commas as lists or grouper-togetherers:

I like cornbread, cookies, beans and ice cream. But I do not like this sentence—ewwww! (Intro)If you want beans in your ice-cream, (pause/hitch breath) go right ahead.

But I do like the serial—not cereal—comma. Although wouldn’t that be cute? A bowlful of punctuation-shaped cereal for grammarians/writers? Haw! *Kat considers giving up novel-writing to create a Punctuation Cereal and becoming a millionaire* Anyway, *back to reality, Kat* the serial comma makes sense in the world of grouper-togetherers.

I like cornbread, cookies, beans, and ice cream.

See how each list of food has its own place in the sentence world?

I like cornbread. I like cookies. I like beans. I like ice cream.

is not:

I like cornbread. I like cookies. I like beans and ice cream. Ewwwwww!

I can also do a grouping, thusly,

I like cornbread and beans, cookies and ice cream, and serial commas. Teehee.

Notice above how each little family of words has their own little neat home to live in. Their own little grouping. The items that go together are placed together. Those that do not go together are separated by commas. The comma keeps things neatly packaged that should be neatly packaged together. The comma separates what doesn’t belong in the same package.

Clear as the mud on the bottom of your boot, ain’t it? Or maybe you are beginning to understand. Maybe I am a Geeeeenius at explaining the teeny tiny wittle cutie squiggly and suddenly the clouds are clearing and you shout EUREKA! and you name your dog after me or something. *Kat has dreamy expression thinking of puppies running around named “Kat” because that sounds contradictory and funny haw haw haw—at least to her pea-headed brain it does—stop judging me!*

Look folks, here’s the thing: commas are irritating little shitters and they always will be. I mean, geeeezzzz, I have a headache just trying to explain them. And even as I type these words for this post, I worry I will miss one or I’ll place one in the wrong spot. I’ll be in a hurry and someone out there will gloat and scream how I messed up. Ungh!  I’ll go back and read this and think, “This could be better.” But isn’t that the Thang about writing? How we always should be growing and learning? How we should think: “This could be better,” and then we make it better—until it is Done, for at some point we must be Done, right?

Below are two grammar sites that talk about the comma and may be a better help to you than my pea-headed self. I invite you to visit and to study their contents. Pay Attention. When your AHA! moment comes, you may then begin to manipulate the language with Knowledge, and folks, that’s when the real fun begins.

These have a whole-lotto comma madness—lawd!

Guide to Grammar & writing—rules for comma use: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm

Grammar Girl—an entire page of links on commas, oh yes. Pick your poison: http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/SearchResults.aspx?cx=018137038020134942690:bivmuxgubrq&cof=FORID:11&ie=UTF-8&sa=Search&safe=active&q=comma

see y’all on Wednesday Free-for-All!

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11 thoughts on “Monday Classroom: Those squiggly little bast—um, The Comma

  1. Ah, the good old Oxford comma. Beans and Ice-cream sound quite nice, bearing in mind I am on a diet!

    Thanks for the links for info, Kat. I need all the help I can get. :)

  2. Commas. Arg! I think it is also important (especially for us proofreaders and editors) to know how a WRITER likes to use them. I try to keep the personality of the writer in mind when proofreading. I love the series comma, and I do not like beans in my ice cream.

    • Yes – when my editor at Bellebooks edits my manuscript, it’s pretty danged “clean,” but this last time she added commas after my “Oh’s” as in “Oh, I am so tired” instead of how I had it “Oh I am so tired” – and I agreed. I just never thought about it before. Oh and the rest of the sentence just seemed to be all one unit. But she mostly left alone my other non-comma places because either she didn’t notice (because I deftly hid it *teeheehee*) or agreed.

  3. And here it is, the post I’ve been waiting for, and you’ve said precisely what I’ve suspected all along, “Commas are irritating little shitters and they always will be.” (Bahhahaha!) Oh how these wiggle dots vex me :-O A typical writing scenario for me, is to think I’ve gotten it right, then reread and weep, because all at once I’ll see where I went awry, and I’ll again set out with a vengeance to add and delete commas like the grammar slayer I am. I read my work out loud when I’m editing (as long as no one is home to heckle and laugh), listening to the words until the drone of my own voice puts me to sleep. Or worse the sentences look either like this: Kat, has, a ,tiny, pea, head. Or: I like cornbread I like cookies I like beans and ice cream. Extremes in either direction, so then I’m back at the page.

    Your, hee hee, funny, yet infinitely wise post, has left me newly encouraged that I can win this war against the mighty comma after all. Your explanation is clear and concise, and that’s just the thing for Barbara’s tiny pea-head. Thank’s Kat. Your Picky S*** series has sorted me out on more than one grammar challenge.

    (And don’t think for an instant that I’m not temped to crawl back through my comment to move around some of those squiggle-dots, but I’m just not gonna do it!)

    • *laughing* — don’t worry, I removed or put in commas where I liked them . . . haw! (just kidding . . . okay maybe not . . . or am . . . I will never tell . . . *laughing*)

  4. Hi Kat – Mardi Gras .. is it — oh coming up – that’s good. Commas – I try not to use too many! I’m not sure I ever mastered grammar – they introduced Latin and French into the curriculum, when we were still learning English – and I never mastered any of them!! Obviously osmosis occurred -ooo I like those ‘Os’ … as I’ve absorbed a fair amount somewhere along the line …

    Is it right that lawyers don’t use commas …. so the meaning can be distorted, or not understood in the first place?

    Cheers – Happy Valentine’s Day in the meantime … Hilary

    • When my mom worked for lawyers, one of them yelled at her for using too many commas -she threw the paper at him and said, “you do it yourself then!” and left the room . . . he begged her not to be mad and apologized – teehee – for she was their hardest worker. :-D just remembered that when you said lawyer and comma :-D

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