Tag Archives: nonrestrictive modifiers

No-Comma Zones!

Cartoon policeman

Grammar Police do exist.

They’re called agents.

I present as evidence a memory of my then-agent saying that when she saw a comma after “and” or “but” in a query or manuscript, she quit reading.

I consider her automatic rejection a bit extreme, but she highlights an important fact: agents are always in need of a reason to move on to the next query. If something as simple as a misplaced comma can earn instant rejection, why not work on getting such small triggers fixed?

I’ve created a list of what I consider five basic comma rules; I argue that if your questionable comma doesn’t fit one of these categories, you’re better off leaving it out. Many times a sentence’s meaning is perfectly clear without commas even if technically you should use them. Commas, correctly placed, control rhythm and emphasis in sentences, and where you use one can be a judgment call.

However, there are a few places where commas tend to crop up when they really shouldn’t. In these instances, they can interrupt rhythm rather than improve it and in some cases, they actually muddle meaning.

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway

Here are three “no comma zones” you should be aware of.

1. Around essential modifiers when the essential element is a name.

Understanding essential vs. non-essential modifiers can be daunting. Here, I’ll review the protocol, but check out this link for additional guidance and more good examples.

A non-essential modifier provides additional information that really is just that—additional. It isn’t needed for the sentence to make sense.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.

Take out “which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive,” and the sentence works just fine.

Non-essential modifiers take TWO commas, one before and one after. Think of the commas as “cuts” you could use to lift out the non-essential stuff. But consider:

The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.

Without the modifier, we have:

The car is the one you should buy.

Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the work the sentence is meant to do.

Essential modifiers DO NOT TAKE COMMAS. Using them around these elements violates the “no comma zone.” And that is even true—especially true—when the essential element is a name.

You may have been taught that “appositives” always take commas. They certainly can. Except when they are essential elements. To see how you can decide, look at this:

Author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

The commas mean you can lift the name out. Try it.

Author writes a lot of thrillers.

See?

If you have so many commas you really want to use them up, you can write instead,

The author, Steven King, writes a lot of thrillers.

Personally, I would use commas in this instance only if we were talking about some book of which Steven King is the author, not if we are talking about him in general as an author. Compare “The author Steven King writes a lot of thrillers.” In my view, that’s perfectly fine, even though “Steven King” is technically an appositive.

Typewriter with question marks on the page

2. Between a subject and its verb

The cat with the calico coat, is my sister’s.

You wouldn’t do this? I’ve been in enough writing groups to know that a surprising number of people do. Understandable confusion arises when the “subject” is followed by some kind of interrupting modifier, which would be set off with commas:

The cat with the calico cat, however, is my sister’s.

In addition, looong subjects that may have their own internal commas can make it hard to detect the subject’s verb.

For example, in the sentence I just wrote, the “subject” extends from “looong subjects” all the way to “commas”; “can make” is the relevant verb. So sticking a “pause” between “commas” and “can” would violate this rule. Think of it as a “pause” that unnecessarily breaks up the sentence’s natural flow.

Big question mark in clouds

3. After introductory “And” or “But.”

If you are a disciple of Word’s grammar checker, you may never commit the supposed sin of starting a sentence with “And” or “But.” But doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation. What’s NOT acceptable would be

But, doing so is completely acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation.

The only possible reason to use a comma in this construction is to emphasize the “But.” In fact, commas in general throw emphasis onto the word directly before them. Such a strategy, though, should be a conscious decision. You couldn’t credibly claim you want to emphasize every “but” or “and” you write.

The Bottom Line:

While many excellent blog posts have been published about comma usage, in my view, these three cases of “no comma zones” have gotten short shrift. But each can act as a trigger for that agent or editor with a full inbox. Why not keep them reading long enough to discover your great work?

Book with pages folded like a heart

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The Hardest Comma Rule!

Check the five basic comma rules
Comma Love

Mathina Calliope, at Jane Friedman’s site, does a terrific job of explaining essential/restrictive versus nonessential/nonrestrictive commas, with lot of examples. I know from many observations that writers struggle with this distinction. It’s one of what I argue are “the only comma rules you’ll ever need,” but it’s the hardest to explain in a short space. So head over and check out her discussion.

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More on Commas and Those Pesky Nonessential Modifiers!

Don Massenzio shares more on how to detect and punctuate essential and nonessential modifiers. This post from the Ediket blog provides some great practice examples! Check them out.

via How to Use an Appositive

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What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?

The five basic comma rulesHere’s a great article for you punctuation police to agree or argue with. My personal favorite is the comma. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I wrote an entire post about them.

If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:

Use commas:

  • After introductory elements.

This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.

So:

After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)

But:

After he spent  an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers  know that “where” begins a new clause.)

  • Around “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers.More comma rules

I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.

Short interrupters can be easy to spot:

Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.

Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.

The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue. (The rule here, and it is a rule, is either two commas or none. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.)

Here’s an example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without turning the sentence into nonsense. (I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.)

Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.

Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:

Author wrote a lot of books.

  • Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):Do you need the Oxford Comma?

Hi, Mr. Smith.

Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?

Louise, did you buy the bread?

  • Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the Oxford or serial comma Pinker discusses in the article I’ve linked to, and his examples of the power of this punctuation mark are good ones.)

If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence (and note the comma after the introductory clause).

  • Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.

I’d argue this is a judgment call, but again, as in this sentence, judicious use of the comma in a compound sentence like this one can provide valuable information about which part of the sentence a reader has ventured into.

{Note commas after the introductory element and around interrupters in this sentence. Commas can keep those elements distinct, so that they make sense.)

That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:

  • After introductory elements
  • Around interrupters
  • In direct address
  • Before “and” or “but” in a list of three or more items
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**).Check the five basic comma rules

*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.

**There are actually a number of coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”

 

 

 

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Which Grammar Rules Do You Ignore?

Typewriter publishAs I noted a few posts ago, in his article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams categorized errors by type. Among his more interesting categories, in my view, were those errors that the experts make even as telling us not to (and nobody notices). He also had a category of grammatically correct constructions that sound so odd when we use them that we generally prefer the error.

These categories change with time, since language and usage do, of course. But his discussion of them made me think about the kinds of errors we can and maybe should ignore and, in fact, the kinds of rules we should ignore.

Here are three of my “rules I can ignore” (if I want to). Do you agree with me on these? What are yours?

Three question marks printed on a typewriter

The “that/which” distinction.

Okay, I don’t ignore it, but from what I’ve seen, a whole lot of people do. It’s the one Jacques Barzun didn’t catch himself ignoring, as Williams documents. It depends on knowing the difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive (or an essential versus nonessential) adjective clause (which you can read about here), and yes, I’m using “which” correctly here:

The house, which had just been painted and re-roofed, sat on a cozy cul-de-sac. (Nice info but you could lift if out and not miss it.)

The house that had the new paint and new roof was the best deal of the three. (Allows you to distinguish the best deal from the others; take it out and see how much is lost.)

The point is, only a very few termagants (like me) would even notice if you replaced the “that” in the second sentence with “which.”Typewriter and flowers

The “whom” challenge.

I call this a challenge because the error is a lot less noticeable when people commit it than when they try to get it right and get it wrong. Simply speaking, only the above referenced termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?” The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

A sign of our downfall? Actually, putting that “m” on “who” is an “inflection,” and English has been discarding inflections when they don’t really add any information for centuries.

Actually, the only time most people will want the “whom” form is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered: “To whom did you give it?” “With whom were you going?” “For whom did you buy that hat?” Do you have to write these particular sentences? In my view, not unless you feel compelled.Happy editing

The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, it is compelled whenever one wants to sound formal. So I’ve actually encountered sentences like “Whom is going with us?” Ouch, that really grates.

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

“Did you say who is going with us?” (correct) and “Did you say whom the hat is for?” (again correct–note that little preposition “for” controlling the choice). But “hypercorrectness”—going gaga over sounding upmarket—leads to “Did you say whom is going with us?” As a sort of sub-termagant, I submit that more than a few of the erudite people writers hope to impress WILL notice that one (though I’m willing to be corrected).

In my view, you should go ahead and make the “mistake” of the perfectly natural-sounding “Did you say who the hat is for?” and just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).pile of letters

Singular “they.”

This one is a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause, according to Dennis Baron of the Web of Language, just about forever. English simply has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun—except “it,” of course; just try choosing “it” in this sentence: “Everybody should bring his/her/its lunch to the meeting.”

The conundrum, of course, is that “everybody” wants so badly to be singular; we say “everybody is,” not “everybody are.” Certain people who shall not be named think there’s really no problem. Just pick “his,” and who’ll care? After all, everybody is a “he,” n’est-ce pas?

For quite a while, “he” and “his” were the preferred options among those who got to do the published writing. Because more kinds of people get to do published writing now, the masculine singular won’t do. As Baron points out, efforts to creatively solve this problem of a singular “antecedent” with no acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun have gone nowhere.

And “his or her” (or “her or his”), the only option that is even remotely close to acceptable, gets old in a hurry (“Everybody should open his or her notebook and take out his or her homework. . . .”). Baron writes that Vanderbilt University has actually declared singular “they” perfectly acceptable in its formal documents. So ignore this baby at will.

letter scatter novel

Those are a few of the rules I think we should ignore a) because people notice them less and less and often never; and b) trying to follow them results in sentences that will offend even people with certified tin ears.

So what are your rules to ignore?Woman writing

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