Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Complexities of Commas

One problem that I have when I’m writing is that I tend to use too many commas. I’ve know about this for a long time, so in my formal writing I end up using too few commas (I was flabbergasted when my first university essay came back added commas everywhere) but in my creative writing, when I’m just trying to get words out, they appear everywhere.

The problem with commas is that it’s sometimes really hard to tell when you need them and when you don’t. Consider this sentence:

Last year that shop was a restaurant.
Last year, that shop was a restaurant.

Which is correct? The first one is nice and simple, but the second one gives a useful little pause. I personally think the second one sounds better when reading it on its own, but in the middle of a long paragraph, a short sentence can probably do without a comma.

 What about longer sentences? Take this sentence (talking about alcoholic candies…)

Since I’m a bit of a special case, I’m not sure if they’re illegal for me, but I know Phoebe can’t have them.

Does it really need both those commas? Could you read it without any commas at all? I just wrote this sentence about an hour ago when I was racing for wordcount so I didn’t really notice the overuse of commas. Now, in editing mode, I think I’d remove the first comma but leave in the second. What do you guys think?

Occasionally, you’ll come across a sentence that really does need the commas. Here’s an example taken from slightly earlier in the story.

I don’t really feel like re-colouring my nails, but Phoebe insists that the beautiful purple definitely does not go with the dress I’m wearing today, which happens to be green with a thin blue pattern woven into it.

If you took out either of the commas it would just feel a little weird, in my opinion. In this case, it should be fine to leave the commas in. However, if you have two many run-on sentences like this it could start to feel repetitive and a little boring. In that case, the best thing to do would be to re-word the sentence. Here’s a way to reword the sentence to get rid of a comma:

I don’t really feel like re-colouring my nails, but Phoebe insists that the beautiful purple definitely does not go with the greeny-blue dress I’m wearing today.

I just lost a little bit of detail about the dress, but since it really isn’t important to the plot it doesn’t matter. Now I have a sentence with just one comma that says exactly the same as a sentence with two.

In short, commas are very useful little friends that we must be careful not to overwork. Always hunt through your manuscript to make sure to get rid of unneeded commas. Even if a comma is needed the way your sentence is currently written, consider re-wording it to get rid of commas. Remember that commas are great, but too many makes your writing feel choppy. 


  1. Commas are so crazy! haha! I agree that they're complex. Sometimes there's even a country difference. Americans almost always (of course, not always) put their commas before and (blah, blah, and blah), but most other places don't add that second comma. Country differences are very interesting.

  2. I am bookmarking this post. I have an issue with commas. xDDD I LOVE THEM! I use too many in my writing, but too few in my writing. (that sentence made perfect sense, right?) Seriously though, I use them too much in my formal writing, and then again, I don't use them in the RIGHT places. :P
    Gah. Commas. I know the rules of commas, and I'm naturally good at grammar, but I tend to write like I'm talking, with too many commas. xDD See the sentence I just wrote. :P
    Great Post Elanor!!!! :)

    Jedi~Chick <3

  3. i'm guilty of using too many commas too ^__^;; the only place i never use commas are in a quotation, like :

    "No way, Joe" Steve said.

    for some reason it looks wrong to me as "No way, Joe," Steve said. i cant put the comma before the "X said" lol.