TITLE: Where, Oh Where Does This Last Comma Go
By James Brown
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One of the thorniest duties for a writer is to critique his or her own piece. Reviewing others poses few problems, but looking at your own… well, you know how it is.
I’ve discovered a few tricks to aid myself with this daunting task. Most of them I’ve acquired while reviewing someone else’s work. That is why I believe so strongly in the critique circle. I can help another writer grow, while learning new things myself.
For example, I was doing a review the other day and stumbled on the issue of commas. One site I explored had 21 different rules for using commas. That’s a lot to keep track of, and that’s just one punctuation mark. Add them all together and who knows how many rules there are total.
Let’s look at an example so I can show (not tell?) my idea.
I promised my son that I’d take him to a baseball game and maybe a stop at McDonald’s, for a burger, on the way home.
Under one of the 21 rules, this may be correct usage for commas. The problem for me is that they make the sentence choppy. My idea is to replace the comma with an ellipse for editing purposes – like this
I promised my son that I’d take him to a baseball game and maybe stop at McDonald’s… for a burger… on the way home.
This lets me determine if the sentence gets my meaning across. In most cases, after writing it this way, I’d drop the commas like this – I promised my son that I’d take him to a baseball game and maybe stop at McDonald’s for a burger on the way home.
Now I have a smooth flowing sentence without any bumps. There may be a time when I’d leave the commas in though. If my son was a vegetarian and I was trying to razz him, I’d use the commas to emphasize the burger. Then I’d follow with a quick retort from my son.
Let’s examine another example – So, Sister Marie, you and Marvin here, need to be at the church at six a.m. sharp.
Using my idea, we’d change the sentence to this – So…Sister Marie… you and Marvin here… need to be at the church at six a.m. sharp.
This produces a choppy sentence with three breaks. When I write it this way, I get to thinking I’ll smooth it out a bit by deleting the last comma, like this – So… Sister Maria… you and Marvin here need to be at the church at six a.m. sharp.
I can live with the sentence this way, if the speaker is addressing a group. ‘So’ followed by the first comma gets everyone’s attention. ‘Sister Maria’ followed by the second comma identifies Maria as the one the speaker is addressing.
However, if the speaker is addressing just Maria, I’d personally drop the first comma like this – So Sister Maria, you and Marvin here need to be at the church at six a.m. sharp.
(Isn't it amazing that such a small item can make such a big difference in a sentence?)
Here are three correct, yet different combinations for the same sentence. Context provides the key to determine which is right and changing commas to ellipses lets you see it in context better.
This tool may not work for every sentence, but I believe it can help in those special cases where you’re just not sure. If not, you can always refer to the 21 definitions to see which covers your specific example.
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