Friday, July 8, 2011

Comma Llamas

As previously stated, grammar has always felt tricky to me. When Roseanna and I first started critting for each other, about half the edits she did on my manuscript were commas. There were so many that the poor thing wore out on typing "comma" in the comments section, that she had to add some flare to the monotony and began saying "comma llama." There might have even been a poem or two.

Instead of forcing Roseanna to endure manuscript after manuscript riddled with llama errors, I had her teach me some basic rules. And now I've invited her here to help you with your own llama issues.

Don't forget, if you comment on today's post, last Wednesday's post, or next Monday's post, you'll get entered to win Roseanna's Jewel of Persia. If you comment on all three, you'll get entered three times. (Look at all those correctly used commas! I'm cured!)

Now for Roseanna's wisdom:

Ready for your next dousing in the grammar pool? I sure hope so, because Grammar Girl (oh, we’re friendly now—you can call me GG) is ready to really dive in!

One of the trickiest things to master is—you guessed it—the comma. I am a comma nazi, and I admit it. It’s all courtesy of my AP English teacher, who would dock you half a letter grade for each mistake in your essays, including a forgotten or extra comma. This a huge issue, so it gets its very own post.

There is some gray area in comma placement, but there are some general rules.

Lists—most sources agree that in a list of items, you should include a final comma before the “and.”

Compound sentences—when a sentence is comprised of two (or more) independent clauses (as in, if you separate them from the sentence, they would be a sentence on their own), you need a comma before the conjunction. BUT—if it’s a sentence with one independent and one dependent clause joined by a conjunction, no comma. Examples:

YES TO COMMA: I know it, but I can’t do it.
NO TO COMMA: I know it but can’t do it.

Do you see why, there? Because the “I” makes the phrase in the first example a complete sentence on its own, an independent clause. But leaving out the “I” in the second means it can’t stand on its own, so it’s dependent. And since it’s dependent, it gets no comma.

Appositives—remember these? Those phrases you could remove from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence? Yeah, those—they need to be set off in commas. Example: Clara, the youngest child, knew her place.

Introductory dependent clauses—these are those phrases that start with “when,” “as,” etc. They get a comma after them if the phrase is five or more words (gray area, LOL), but not if it’s fewer. So: When talking grammar one must listen well. BUT: When talking about the intricacies of grammar, one must listen well.

In quotations—I often see mistakes when one has to decide between a comma and a period at the end of a line of dialogue, before the narrative resumes. Here’s the rule. If you follow the quote with a tag (“Hello,” she said.) then it gets a comma. If you follow the quote with an independent sentence, what we call a beat, then it gets a period. (“Hello.” She tucked her hair behind her ear.)

These are your general rules. They get complicated when you get into specifics, but in general, don’t sweat them. That’s what editors are for. ;-) So long as you’ve got the basic rules down, you’ll be fine.

Have questions about them? A particular example you’d like me to look at? Well, bring on the comma llama questions!


  1. In the system change (or, really, in the removal of the new system) some recent comments were eaten. Here they are:

    Rebecca Hagan: Thank you so much for the chance to win this. This sounds like a great book. I would love to read this. Thanks again. agent_beckster(at)yahoo(dot)com

    Jordan Newhouse: What about a list of three items? Somehow I got it into my head that the second example was right... He gave me three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree. Or He gave me three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

    Roseanna White: This has changed time and again over the years, and in different countries. But according to the CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), the current correct way is the first.

    Sarah Holman: Thank you so much for this post. The use of the comma has been one of my biggest grammar problems.

  2. "4readin":I usually make enough commma mistakes. And I know what it's like to edit other people's short stories when they have a hard time with spelling and grammar. It can be difficult.

    Roseanna: Problems with commas I find super-easy to edit through. =) At least if that's the only problem, LOL.

    Jazmine: Hey thanks for posting this! This was so helpful! =D I'm still a little hazy on grammar thingies but hey, I'm still learning. :)

    Rachelle: Lol. I enjoy reading about the friendship you two share. It sounds like you have a great thing going...a patient friend who is willing to wax poetic about grammar errors is rare indeed. :) Thanks for the opportunity to enter!

    Roseanna: 'Tis a lifelong practice, Jazmine. =) And in case one cannot tell, Roseanna has been writing about 1779 today.

    We also make a lot of immature, dumb jokes. ;-) Seriously, God knew what he was doing when He directed us to buy the same red bag and hence strike up a conversation at the ACFW conference a few years ago!

  3. Ellyn: Here's a question. In a sentence like, "She brought tennis shoes, boots, and sandals", would you say "tennis shoes, boots and sandals", or would you say "tennis shoes, boots, and sandals"? I'm sure it's the last one but my parents aren't sure.

    Ellyn again: Never mind! I just saw that Jordan asked the same question, so thanks. :) I hope I still get to enter to win your book.... :D

    Roseanna: Second example, yeah. This rule has changed back and forth over the years, so your parents may well have been taught not to put it in. But the latest version of the Chicago Manual of Style definitely says there should be a comma before the conjunction.

    Roseanna again: And I just saw that you just saw it, LOL.

    Tonya: Grammar hurt my brain, it makes me feel like I need a nap. But you did a great job explaining. I need to spend some more time going over this so I'll actually remember it! I really do like your hair :) I wish my was a little more sleek and controllable

    Roseanna: It takes practice, but after a while the general rules will become second nature. =) And thanks! The hair was based on Samantha Brown's from all the "Passport to" travel shows. My hairdresser's getting bored of it, LOL, but it's become ME.

    Tonya: So funny about the hair! I love Samantha Browns hair and have thought about getting it cut like hers because we have a similar texture. Have you ever noticed how her hair is straight but by the end of the day it's cowlick & flips up in the back? My hair is just like that. Mostly straight but for w/e reason it's wavy underneath & always wants to flip up at the ends :/ the reason I didn't cut it exactly like hers is because my hair is A LOT thicker so short like that it'll poof and be big, lol!

    Roseanna: Mine's super-thick too--she has to thin it out to avoid the poof, LOL. Not wavy though, gotta say. Used to be curly when I was a tot, and my son's is too. He's destined to having a good head of hair with nice body. ;-)

  4. It's so nice to be told you're doing something right! I'm quite lucky in that I can generally tell if something's wrong by the look/rhythm when I read it through. My pet hate has to be when people confuse "your" and "you're" - it drives me nuts!!! ;)