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Monday, September 19, 2011

The Grammar Hokey Pokey

You put the comma in…
You take the comma out… 
You put the comma in
And you shake your fists about…

We’re always looking for a way to stand out from the crowd. Our voice. Our stories. Our hooks. Our platforms. Those are all good ways. But…grammar? Grammar is non-negotiable. You don’t want to stand out by re-writing the rules. I mean, you wouldn’t type your query or synopsis in txt spk (lol) or ALL CAPS, would you? Louder is not better. It’s just annoying.

Bad grammar is annoying, too. Learn the rules. Improve your craft. Be a master of language. That’s a much better way to stand out.

I assume everyone will spell check and knows the difference between your and you’re (and, goodness help us, yore.) But what about the trickier things like that versus which? Or…

dun dun duhnnnnnn

Commas.

That’s right. Commas. Those tiny twists of pure evil. Those little hooks that snag up our sentences and send us sprawling.

I hate ‘em, myself.

But, alas, being a writer means we need to remain objective when it comes to proper punctuation. Love them or hate them, the laws of grammar must be obeyed.

I Put The Commas In

In an effort to improve my craft, I often take online courses through Pennwriters, my writers’ organization. One particular class focused on scene and sequence but I got a bonus lesson—commas.

Commas do one of two things, my instructor said. They either set off or separate. She then went on to discuss clauses and all these other things my English teachers tried in vain to teach me. I studied, I evaluated my writing, and I saw what I’d been doing wrong: I had a tendency to place commas where they didn’t belong.

Thus, lesson learned, I opened my 106,000-word manuscript and fixed every comma gone wrong.

I Took the Commas Out

Satisfied with my new mastery of commas, I made a solemn vow to abuse commas no more and sent out a submission to a publisher. The rejection was shocking. There's quite a few simple grammar errors in your synopsis -- missing commas mostly -- and if they're in your query it makes me think they'll also be in your novel. I'm afraid that over 100'000 words it's the sort of thing that would send an Editor a bit batty.

What? Were they kidding me? I was so incensed I almost organized a cage match between that slush reader and my instructor. Instead, however, I settled for some teeth grinding and adding the publisher to my ignore list. I’d let those editors retain their questionable sanity and I’d stay far away from people who were obviously heavy comma abuse addicts. The last thing I should have done was respond with an angry retort or, worse yet, lecture on proper punctuation. Not all junkies come clean. I was too new to comma sobriety to hang out with people exhibiting at-risk behaviors.

And I Shake My Fists About

As writers, we have a duty to learn the rules of the craft. Sometimes the rules are slippery and seem to change at the whim of whoever is in charge. For example, I once got editor’s notes back on a short story only to find he added in a bunch of terrible commas. I could have fought the madness…but I was in a rather lenient mood. I just accepted the track changed and did a little *head desk* thing.

It’s his magazine, I reminded myself. He can put commas wherever he pleases. At least he didn’t blame any type of mental illness on me.

Maybe we have to bend a little and play by their rules if it comes down to having a contract or not. Regardless. We still need to learn all we can. Our reputations and our first impressions may depend on it.

I recently came across the comma topic on the QueryTracker.net Forum. One of our QTs gave a beautiful summation of comma usage. (The post is a must read. Thanks, Tabris!)

Could commas be explained so simply? And were there actually other Elements of Style nerds out there? At least I now know where all that previous publisher hate came from. They weren’t comma abuse junkies--they’re just European. (Explains their comma-awkwardness.)

Tabris also went a long way to confirm everything my Pennwriters instructor told us. It helped heal the wound left behind by that publisher’s rejection. (Hey, those things sting.)

Good luck, writers, on your own grammatical gauntlets and your word dances and your quests for good craft. Be true to the rules and obey the laws of punctuation. Do not, as William Sabin writes in THE COMMA, Excerpt from The Gregg Reference Manual, sprinkle commas down upon your writing like confectioners’ sugar upon a cake. Go forth and inflict comma trauma no more.

You do the Grammar Hokey Pokey
and revise another round—
That’s what it’s all about.





Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who resides in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, where she keeps the book jacket for "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" in a frame over her desk. Visit the Spec Fic Website at www.ashkrafton.com for updates on the release of her debut novel, Bleeding Hearts, forthcoming in early 2012 through Pink Narcissus Press.

13 comments:

Genevieve Graham-Sawchyn said...

Hilarious! Thanks for that. I've tried to write summaries for comma usage and have given up. I think the only way for anyone to get them all right is to approach one usage at a time, then move onto the next, then, like you did, start all over again.

Or hire an editor! (suggestion: www.WritingWildly.com)

Carolyn Abiad said...

Clever post! Comma-philes should really should refrain from the sprinkling. Some people think more commas means more sophisticated.

Scotti Cohn said...

Wow, I can't believe that rejection letter comment about your use of commas. As a professional copy editor, I see comma placement as a copy editor's job -- typically we are expected to impose "house style" (whatever that may be, depending on the individual publisher). For example, one publisher I work for insists on serial commas. However, many publishers do not want them. You're right that there was no point in responding to the letter.

Jan Markley said...

Good article. I think we all struggle with commas. Personally, I never met a comma I didn't splice!

Stephanie said...

I used to be an extreme comma-user....but have since learned to omit. There are times my content editor will add or delete them, and then the line editor comes in and adds and deletes...so I have no clue. I just do my best.

ash-krafton said...

It's so comforting to know that there are editors out there willing to act as sponsors to us recovering comma addicts. :)

And that rejection was cut-and-pasted right out of its email. It was way too easy to go back through old messages to find it-- what a keeper!

Trish said...

Wonderful post. I'm glad I'm not the only one afraid of commas. They've been a thorn in my side since I left school, still not knowing where the hell to put them.

When I started writing children's stories at the age of fifty-three, I had to learn, so I joined online critique groups and also bought books on grammar. Sometimes, I add more commas than is needed in Australia.

I self-published three children's books and when one was reviewed, the reviewer stated she was confused as to the setting because the grammar was American, the dialogue English, and the scenery had Australian animals.

I had to laugh because I was born in England, I live in Australia, but I learned to write on on-line critique groups that had mainly American writers. Now, I never know where commas go and if I submit to an Australian publisher, they'll think I'm American.

My British writing pals tell me I have too many commas. If I take them out my American pals say I should put them in. LOL. Haha. See, I put a comma after 'Now' (That's American) That's how I write now because I'm used to it. (I'm glad it's not just me.)

Maybe I should move to America. :)

Porter Anderson said...

Ash Krafton's Twitter handle is @AshKrafton
Thanks.
@Porter_Anderson

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

My bad, Porter! Keep kicking me, and I will remember eventually!

Someone also let me know that the link to the comma post on the QueryTracker Forum wasn't working properly. Not sure how I screwed that up so bad, but I got it fixed now! :)

Carolyn (responsible only for the posting; Ash wrote this wonderful piece!)

Guyanne said...

Awesome post! I have recently started blogging (http://writingaright.blogspot.com/) the first article I wrote was titled, Commas . . . Take two and call me in the morning?? I felt others should be warned.
I have prayed and prayed for comma wisdom. I have fought comma demons and secretly wished for comma fairies — all to no avail. Finally, I prayed for comma angels to come, simply gather all my commas in baskets, and sprinkle them as needed throughout my manuscript.
I thought maybe, I need a comma doctor to prescribe commas. You know the same way a regular doctor prescribes medicine . . . take two and call me in the morning or apply liberally to affected area. Then I cried out in the darkness, “Help me I’m comma-ing and I can’t stop.” So, I have decided to go to “comma” school. I may see some of you there.
Thanks for posting Ash. Love your website and looking forward to the release of Bleeding Hearts in 2012.

mfantaliswrites said...

Forget responding to that editor's comma problem. How about dealing with HER failure to grasp basic grammar: "There's quite a few simple grammar errors in your synopsis"? I can't think of a more simple grammar error than not having the subject, verb and object agree (and no, I'm not a fan of the serial comma). :)

ash-krafton said...

Don't worry, mfantaliswrites, I never responded to that editor...the only response I ever give to any type of rejection is "Thanks for taking a look"...and if I can't say that, I don't say anything.

:)

ash-krafton said...

Guyanne, that was a hoot! I have to stop by your blog.

If there are such things as comma fairies, I hope there is such a thing as comma fairy repellant!