Friday, May 29, 2009

Discretionary Commas and other explosive topics

Well, well. I really had thought out what I was going to post here (and I haven't changed the meat of it, I promise) when I decided to do a quick google (used as a verb here, I'm very progressive) to see what folks might encounter if they just typed "discretionary comma" into a search engine, and . . . gee . . . is this ever a strange subject on the internet.

I was very surprised to see my own post from yesterday show up on the first page. There isn't a whole lot out there, but opinion reigns supreme.

So, before I get into what I think a discretionary comma is, I think I'll make a little opinion statement of my own on grammar and punctuation and the state of the information on it on the internet for writers of fiction.

Fasten your seatbelts.

I studied creative writing before I studied editing. One led to the other---long story, maybe I'll post it one day. I actively participate in writers' groups and online writers' groups as a writer. I also participate in editors' groups. The difference between the two is a chasm I'm struggling to see both sides of. (Non-rule, ending a sentence with a preposition.)

And I find writers don't fare so well in good will and accuracy when they advise other writers on questions of grammar and punctuation.

So, what has this got to do with the benign comma, the lowliest of punctuation marks (except the period which has no charisma at all)?

Sigh. Almost all of the advice you will find on grammar or punctuation on the Internet is geared to academic or non-fiction works. College and university sites, advice for essays, prescriptive dogma for journalists and students and the writers of how-to books and treatises on environmental issues or political strategies.

Fiction is different, folks. Different. And the writer can use discretion with punctuation. They can also use imagination. That doesn't mean that every whimsical comma placed or omitted by a writer will end up in print. But it does mean that acquisitions editors and quality copyeditors of fiction will respect a writer's unorthodox use of punctuation---if it works and the writing is stunning. And that's the key. It has to work. It can't just be a pretentious desire to be different. It has to work within and for the manuscript itself.

That said, here is my take on discretionary commas in fiction. I'll leave the fine points of non-fiction and academic writing up to those who know it best.

Commas are those small little curly things that group a sentence into related thoughts and whose job is to provide clarity. Without commas, some sentences don't make sense, or can mislead a reader into expecting a completion of a thought that veers into territory the writer didn't intend.

While we were eating my dog got out of the yard.

Eww...eating your dog?

The comma is definitely needed here.

While we were eating, my dog got out of the yard.

That's better.

A discretionary comma is one that is correct, but perhaps not necessary.

On the way to church, she stopped for a coffee.

Sure, this is absolutely correct. Punctuation police satisfied. But is it entirely necessary? Is the meaning of the sentence going to be nebulous if you leave it out? It is a continuous scenario. She stopped on the way to church. There aren't two different things happening in space or time or the ethers. One is the continuation of the other, or conversely, the culmination of the other.

On the way to church she stopped for a coffee.

I don't know about you, but to me, the first sentence and the second sentence mean exactly the same thing with or without the comma. Is there a slight pause if you were reading it out loud? Maybe, but that's not what commas are for. They are there to make a sentence logical and meaningful. I don't see the comma having any impact on this sentence. And neither will your reader.

So that's my take on discretionary commas on a sentence like this. Every comma can be examined, judged and found worthy or not. :-) Most are necessary, some aren't.

My advice to writers of fiction is to concentrate on the writing. Ask, if punctuation doesn't seem to fit a sentence, or appears to be working against it, or if you're just plain stymied on what goes where. But the writing, the characters, the fiction, are the key.

Editors will forgive you just about anything if they can't stop reading.


  1. Love the argument on necessity. Viewing it that way will really help me whenever I find myself speculating over a comma in a brief sentence.


  2. This is the first clear explination of how/when to use a comma that I've ever read. THANKS!

  3. Awesome post. Thank you. I like that you make the distinction between academic writing and fictional writing. I don't think many writers understand this! I'm a big fan of trusting my gut when it comes to commas, and I think it has to do with the logical equation you bring up. Of course, what makes sense to me doesn't always make sense to somebody else. ;)

  4. Thanks Casey, Bish and Lady Glamis. I'm glad this makes sense.

    One of the reasons I started this blog was because so much internet advice is prescriptive (THE RULES), and entirely geared to non-fiction. What is expected and enforced in journalism is fine in journalism. There's nothing wrong with meticulously correct punctuation, but it can make a work of fiction appear very fussy and prim at times.

    Not every editor will agree on which commas are discretionary and which aren't. But it has been my experience that all editors recognize that there *is* such a thing as discretion in punctuating fiction.

    It really is a different world. :-)

  5. The battle of the comma is my biggest dilemma, to comma or not to comma. everytime I allow another writter friend of mine to critique my writing I get another conflicting opinon. Reading your post was refreshing.

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