Punctuation! On the Use of Commas

While punctuation may form just a small percentage of a work’s overall character count, the use of it can make or break its readability. Punctuation is the vehicle for indicating to your reader how your sentences should be read, which can result in wildly different meanings. Let’s look at a few examples.

 

Ah, the mighty comma. There are many, many rules for comma use, but in general there is one governing law I follow in my editing. Read the sentence out loud to yourself. Did you pause at any point? Change the inflection of your voice? Then you probably need a comma! (Do I sit at the table in my workspace mumbling to myself? You bet I do.) These commas are often referred to as vocative commas, or commas that exist to make sentences more readable. After many years of English classes and repeated Google searches, I have learned there are pretty much no definite rules for this type of comma use. If you think your syntax would benefit from one, add it!

 

Of course, there are many other reasons to include a comma, all of which are subject to defined rules. Placement of a comma within your sentence can drastically alter its meaning. Consider the famous example:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

vs.

Let’s eat Grandma!

The first sentence sounds like a pleasant invitation for your grandmother to join you at the luncheon table. The second, on the other hand, is rather more vicious.

 

If you join together more than one independent clause within a single sentence, use a comma.

We went down to the dock, but we couldn’t find your boat.

Note how the two haves of the sentence on their own each constitute full thoughts, and could be written individually as smaller sentences. (As a brief note, this is why you often need a comma before the word ‘but’.)

 

If a piece of your sentence is kinda hanging out on its own, and you need to make it feel like it belongs with the other words in the sentence, gently introduce the sections with some commas. (The awkward, antisocial fragments are indicated in bold.)

While we were on deck, the wind was tearing at our hair and whistling in our ears.

The galley was so filthy, I think, because no one has cleaned it in a long time.

That marina is beautiful, too.

Why are you so salty, Captain?

 

Alright, time to include lists on this list. If you list more than two things, you probably need commas.

My hobbies include sailing, reading, and writing.

Even if you’re listing adjectives, you still need them! If you can rearrange the order of the adjectives in front of your noun without things sounding awkward, they are considered to be listed. In this case, two things are enough to warrant comma usage.

The large, blue boat crested over the oncoming wave.

The large, blue cruising boat crested over the oncoming wave.

See how there is no comma between ‘blue’ and ‘cruising’ in that last example? That is because ‘cruising’ applies to ‘boat’ in a different way than ‘blue’ does. The easy trick for this is just to say the reverse order out loud. If it sounds strange, you don’t need a comma between them.

This, of course, brings up the matter of the Oxford comma. I know, I know, I once hated them, too. But I have come around. The Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the ‘and’ that separates the last two things in a list.

My hobbies include sailing, reading, and writing.

That second, bolded comma is the Oxford one. While many people argue that they seem extraneous and silly, they can actually vastly improve readability, especially when you want to list actions taken by a character.

The deckhand leapt onto the deck, seized the life raft, threw it overboard and waved his arms.

vs

The deckhand leapt onto the deck, seized the life raft, threw it overboard, and waved his arms.

The first sentence makes it sound as if the deckhand is waving his arms around while also trying to throw the life raft. This is a level of multitasking that I would not recommend to anyone.

 

Of course, there are several other reasons you might need to use a comma. The ones I have included above are the types I most often run into when editing, so take note and comma wisely!

 

I would be remiss if I did not include a brief warning to those of us who might get comma-happy (as an English teacher from my youth, Mr. Evans, so often ranted and raved about). Do not pepper them in so often that things get jittery. If you think, that you sound nervous, when reading your sentence, it might be, because, you’ve gone overboard.

Let’s Talk Dialogue

Formatting dialogue can be less straightforward than it sounds. There are a lot of considerations to be made when deciding how someone is saying something. First, let’s take a look at some of the basic rules.

 

The part of the sentence that indicates who said what is called the speaker tag. In the following examples, the speaker tag is bolded.

“The seas are rough tonight,” said the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain said, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate said, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

The speaker tag usually gets separated from the dialogue by a comma. If the speaker tag follows dialogue, the comma goes inside the quotation marks, as in the first and second examples above. Speaker tags can also be separated by other forms of punctuation.

“I don’t want to walk the plank!” exclaimed the boy.

“Why does he have to walk the plank exactly?” asked the first mate.

In these cases, the first letter of the speaker tag is still lowercase.

 

Okay, I’ll say it. ‘Said’ is old and tired. It drives me crazy to read a manuscript where every speaker tag uses the same word. “Let’s go sailing today!” Laura said. “I don’t think there’s enough wind,” Bob said. “I think there might be,” said Laura. This repetition is tiresome. Let’s take a look back at the first three examples we used and see if we can’t spice them up a little.

“The seas are rough tonight,” asserted the sailor.

“I’ll tell you again,” the Captain growled, “I don’t like that chart.”

The pirate muttered, “You’re going to walk the plank.”

See how much more meaning we can pack into those sentences? This elevates your writing and removes the need for you to explain in another sentence how the speaker said what they said. (Check out this list to see some ideas for words to use in place of ‘said’.) Make sure, however, that you choose the right word for the verb in your speaker tag. Don’t make a mistake like this:

“I don’t think these are the trade winds,” questioned the lad.

“What other winds would they be?” asserted the deckhand.

The first bit of dialogue wasn’t a question and the second wasn’t an assertion. Be choosy in your word choice!

 

Sometimes a speaker tag is not required, and the person speaking can be implied. Check out this example:

The dockworker was brought up short. “What do you mean there are no more barrels?”

We can assume that the dockworker was the one to ask about the barrels. One of the things that indicates who the speaker is has to do with paragraph construction. Even in complicated situations like the one below, we know who must have said what.

“What is your favorite constellation?” asked the captain.

“Orion, sir,” replied the first mate.

“Aye, it is mine as well.”

“Really?”

“Indeed it is.”

We know that the first mate said “really” because we began a new paragraph when he spoke. Generally, if one person has already spoken within a paragraph, a new paragraph needs to be started when the next person speaks. One person, however, can have dialogue at different points within the same paragraph without a new one being required.

“I don’t like the sound the engine is making,” the engineer whispered. Indeed, the entirety of the boat was vibrating, an ominous thrumming emanating from belowdecks. “I’ll go check it out.”

This also saves us from needing a second speaker tag. We can assume the engineer said he would go check it out because a new paragraph wasn’t started for that line of dialogue.

 

Additionally, if a character is speaking enough to move on from one topic to another within a single section of dialogue, a paragraph break can be used to indicate the change of subject while keeping the two sections of dialogue together.

“I checked on the engine. I don’t think the problem is mechanical.” The engineer heaved in a breath. “There is something living down there. That vibration is the sound of it breathing.

“I tried to reach a hand into the pipes to pull it out, but it nearly tore my arm off. I’m not sure what to do at this point, captain.”

Notice that there are no closing quotation marks on the first paragraph, but there are opening ones on the second. This is the proper formatting for this construction.

 

Now that we understand the basics of putting speech into a sentence, let’s talk getting fancy. Dialogue is special because you can make your characters say whatever you want, often without having to worry about the rules of proper grammar. Characters can have accents:

“I don know watcha mean, laddie.”

They can stutter:

“The-the s-s-sails—they’re going to tear!”

They can sound drunk:

“I thin I fundwere the skippr was ahidn eh rum.”

They can speak in incomplete sentences:

“Ten-four, captain. Whale there, port side. Eyes sharp.”

Or basically speak in gibberish:

“I think, I can’t— I mean, I thought it was a mermaid, but then again, siren—no, wait! Yes! A siren!”

Notice that however strange the speech of a character may get, it doesn’t excuse you from correctly punctuating and formatting it. These special forms of speech are often much harder to write correctly than their more plain counterparts. But if you think you have a handle on how to write dialogue, go ahead and give something fancy a shot.

“Power to yer!”

Punctuation! What to Avoid

While punctuation may form just a small percentage of a work’s overall character count, the use of it can make or break its readability. Punctuation is the vehicle for indicating to your reader how your sentences should be read, which can result in wildly different meanings. Let’s go over some common punctuation mistakes…and then some less common ones.

 

I know I already alluded to them, so let’s start with ellipses. An ellipsis is a set of three periods that is meant to communicate a pause or a trailing off.

“I don’t think…I like the sound of that,” whispered the captain.

The sailor scrubbed at his face with a shaking hand. “There goes the mast…”

Ellipses are only ever three periods. Not more and not fewer. More periods do not invoke a longer pause, they are just incorrect. Also note that it matters whether or not the ellipse runs up against the word following it. If it does, it implies a pause within a sentence. If it does not, it indicates that there was a pause between sentences that began at the end of the preceding one, and the second sentence should be capitalized. Try to hear the difference between these examples:

“Let’s just…go around. There is bound to be a better harbor on the other side of the island.”

“Let’s just go around… There is bound to be a better harbor on the other side of the island.”

 

I know we already talked a bit about commas, but let’s briefly cover a few places where they don’t belong.

I walked along the dock, while also whistling.

If you are using ‘while’ to join two sections of a sentence in the manner above, you don’t need a comma. Properly punctuated, this sentence would read:

I walked along the dock while also whistling.

I would argue that this is not the best form this sentence could take. Consider these more elegant options:

Whistling, I walked along the dock.

I walked along the dock, whistling.

In these instances the comma takes over the job of a joining word.

 

The interrobang. It’s elusive, strange, and somehow so alluring. It’s purpose is to indicate the inflection of both an exclamation mark and a question mark. While there is a singular punctuation mark that comprises the interrobang that looks like this:

often writers will substitute a doubled set of punctuation to take its place, like this:

“Why is the rudder gone?!”

In general however, this isn’t condoned. Many exclamation points can often be deleted from a manuscript, replaced by better forms of indication that whatever it was was exclaimed.

The captain whirled on the deckhand. “Why is the rudder gone?

“Why is the rudder gone?” screamed the captain.

 

Along this same line of thinking, some writers think they can endow their sentences with more intense meaning by including more than one of a single type of punctuation mark.

The mariner exploded. “Why is there no more rum???”

“But I need my rum!!!” his wife cried.

This does not pack the dialogue with more punch. Save the strings of question marks for text messages to your mother when you realize you don’t know how to do laundry.