A Comma’s Job Security?

bewilderd commaThe comma stood on the corner, bleating, “Please, can someone help me? I know I belong somewhere, but I can’t quite remember where.”

Devon Taylor, copy editor, sat at the counter of the diner across the street and watched as passers-by skittered around the pitiful punctuation mark. They looked away determined to not notice it.

Devon (destined to become The Nib) couldn’t really blame them. Commas were notoriously slippery creatures. But there was something about this comma that made Devon think it was truly in trouble.

The editor set down the empty coffee cup and wandered across the street.

“What brings you to Conjunctionville?” Devon asked the punctuation mark.

“Oh! Thank you for helping,” the comma was practically hopping. “I think I’m supposed to meet a couple of independent clauses for a job, but I can’t remember all the details. It was supposed to be set up by the FANBOYS.  I read over a couple of news stories, but they don’t seem to want commas hanging out with conjunctions that link independent clauses. I just don’t know what to do.”

“I’m a copy editor, and I’ve noticed more and more news sites (like our competition, the Pencil Post) have been leaving you guys out between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. I thought it was some sort of cost-cutting move.”

The comma, dejected, said, “I was convinced I’d always have a job. Sure, those Oxford commas have it rough what with some people using them and some not. Who thought anyone would eliminate commas in compound sentences?”

“Well, the Associated Press Stylebook sure doesn’t,” Devon said. “It specifically states you should be in there, and most news organizations follow AP – or at least say they do.”

Devon’s heart went out to the comma which was, by now, in tears.

“Look, I have a connection at the Department of English Language Offenses. It’s just two blocks down the street on your right. When you get there, ask for Detective Dis Connect. Maybe he can help you. Tell him Devon Taylor sent you.”

The comma confidently strode toward the DELO. Devon wasn’t so sure it could be helped. The world was changing, and writers seemed to be getting lazier.


OMG! It’s Extreme Eddie!


“Grammar! It’s so good to see you!”

“Hi, Eddie. How’ve you been?”

Grammar Smith cringed.  Her “chats” with Eddie Exclamation always exhausted her.

“Life is great! Eddie Junior just took his first steps yesterday! Edwina started kindergarten, too! I haven’t seen you in a week! Where’ve you been hiding?!”

“Oh, I’ve been here, slogging away and trying to keep the city safe from writing abuses. You know how it is.”

“Sure do! You’re doing a great job! I can’t imagine what things would be like without you folks!”

“Thanks, Eddie. Well, I’ve got to get back to work. Have a good day.”

“Great talking to you, Grammar! We’ll have to have lunch sometime and catch up! You have a great day, too!!!”

Grammar slumped down at her desk.

“You look like you just ran into Eddie Exclamation,” Dis Connect said as he handed his boss a cup of coffee. “I saw him coming and ducked into the bathroom.”

“Yeah, I feel like I just got back from the gym or something,” Grammar sipped in some caffeine. “Eddie’s a nice guy, but talking to him is like standing in a puddle next to a downed wire. It’s just too much energy. I wish he would tone things down a bit.”

“After a while, I just tune him out,” Dis said as he pecked at his keyboard.

A talent you display much too often, Grammar thought as she turned to her own work.

“Lieutenant, we’ve got a problem.” Sgt. Metaphor came rushing over. “Eddie Exclamation just downed a super-sized espresso and is headed for the candy jar.”

“Oh, no!” Grammar grabbed a tranquilizer gun and headed for the lobby.

Weekend Wrinkle: Punctuation & Road Signs

PunctuationandroadsignsHow many of us can’t seem to use punctuation marks correctly? How many believe they won’t ever get it right?

Now, how many have passed their driver’s test?

Punctuation is a lot easier if you think of the different marks as different road signs. Of course, there are rules to go along with these signs, rules we ignore at our peril. On the other hand, sometimes we don’t always strictly follow the rules. (Take it from a “lead foot.”)

stopsignPeriods [.]are like stop signs. They bring the reader to a complete stop.

Exclamation points [!] are like caution signs.caution

crossroadsQuestion marks [?] are like crossroads signs.

Commas [,] are like yield signs.yieldsign

Semicolons [;] and colons [:] are like four-way stops. allwaystop

detourParentheses [()] are like detour signs.

Dashes [–] are like lane shifts.lanneshift

Okay, so you get the basic idea. It’s not a perfect system, but it’ a good way for me to remember proper punctuation.

Wrangling Commas

Commas – they’re the most commonly used (and abused) punctuation mark.

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to writers using commas:

  • There are the comma sprites who sprinkle commas willy-nilly throughout their writing. These are the folks who take their elementary school teachers’ advice to heart and put a comma everywhere they might take a breath. (If all those teachers knew how many headaches they’ve caused copy editors, they’d cut it out!)
  • There are the comma misers who need an act of Congress to put a comma in where it belongs. Their writing (especially if they like long, compound sentences) are grammatical workouts for the reader. In the end, the reader feels lucky to have gotten out of there with her sanity, never mind understanding what she just read.

Commas scare many writers. They’re like strange cats – they can be friendly. On the other hand, they could tear you apart. You can convince them to do what you want, but you can never really tame them.

There are six rules for commas. Well, they’re more like guidelines. That’s why commas are tough to pin down.

Commas are used

  • before coordinating conjunctions to join independent clauses,
  • to separate three or more items in a series (including modifiers),
  • when using an address or date in a sentence,
  • after an introductory expression,
  • before a comment or question tagged on the end of a sentence,
  • around expressions that interrupt the flow of a sentence, and
  • around nonrestrictive (“scoopable”) clauses and phrases.

Check out extended explanations of these uses in “Six Comma Rules.”

The trouble with commas is that sometimes we need to slow down the reader to make a sentence clearer, but the situation doesn’t fit into these “rules.” What do we do then? We can put in a comma, but we have to have a good reason for doing it.

For example, we could say, “It depends on what is is.” Looks funky even if we write it like this: “It depends on what ‘is’ is.” For visual purposes, a comma is justified: “It depends on what ‘is,’ is.” (Notice the comma is inside the quotation marks. We live in the United States, and this is American English form.)

Here’s another one: “Those of us who can help to build houses for the homeless.” At first glance, this looks like a sentence fragment. But if we put a comma in the right place (between the verbs “can” and “help”), it makes sense: “Those of us who can, help to build houses for the homeless.”

Sure, working with commas can be frustrating. (Have you ever tried to train a cat to do anything?) But as long as you stick close to the guidelines and mindfully, knowledgably break them when necessary, you’ll be fine.