Commas in Lists of Items
According to The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manuel of Style, when listing three items, a comma is placed after the first and second items (Paper, pen, and writer). Some publishers omit the second comma, but they won’t fault you for not knowing their style. The important thing is to be consistent, so the editor can match the style sheet to your manuscript. Plus, if the list contains multiple words, it can be confusing if you don’t add the second comma. (His pets consisted of a long-haired cat, a short-haired dog, and a very noisy parrot.)
The exception to this rule concerns the name of businesses such as law firms which usually omit the last comma (Dewey, Sokum and Howe).
To further complicate things, if the list of items includes commas, they should be set off by semi-colons (The blank, white sheet of paper; the black, fine-line pen; and the ready, spirit-filled writer).
Commas in Adverbial Phrases and Clauses
When the main clause of a sentence is preceded by a phrase or a subordinate clause, you may use a comma to separate the phrase. (Sitting in the back, the group cheered wildly.) or (During the performance, the group cheered wildly.)
If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is slight, however, the comma may be omitted. The comma is usually omitted after short, introductory, adverbial phrases. (On Tuesday Bill was absent from class.)
An adverbial phrase or clause located between the subject and the verb should usually be set off by commas. (Bill, after picking up his assignment, went home.)
Commas should be used to set off interjections, transitional adverbs, and similar elements that affect a distinct break in the continuity of thought. (On the other hand, Bill may be right.) (Yes, Bill was right after all.)
Using Commas in Dialogue
There seems to be some confusion when using commas in dialogue. The commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks, whether single or double. Example: “I want to go with you,” he said. Or: He said, “I want to go with you.” I constantly see errors regarding this rule in print. The Chicago Manual of Style says this is the traditional style, and was used well before the first edition of the manual in 1906.
Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they are part of the dialogue and outside if they are part of the entire sentence. Example: Why did I keep hearing over and over in my head the words, “I’ll never forget you”? Before he said good-bye, he asked, “Will I ever forget you?”
“Commas in Adverbial Phrases and Clauses” will be the topic of next week’s blog.
Now let’s look at some basic rules regarding commas:
Always place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause. In other words, place a comma between two independent clauses separated by a conjunction. Independent clauses have a subject and a verb, and they can stand alone. (The situation looked hopeless, but there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked hopeless, but I didn’t believe it.)
However, do not join independent clauses with a comma if they are lacking a conjunction. They need to be joined with a semi-colon, or they can be cut into two separate sentences. (The situation looked hopeless; there was one remaining chance for success.) or (The situation looked hopeless. There was one remaining chance for success.)
A common mistake made with the comma is to separate a dependent clause from an independent clause when they are joined with a conjunction. (I was told the situation looked hopeless but didn’t believe it.) Each clause must have a subject in order to need a comma before the conjunction.
Misuse of the comma in this way is one of the most common errors made in writing .
We are beginning a seven-part series on “The Elusive Comma.”
“The comma, which seems to cup the sense of the preceding phrase and hold it out to us, timidly and respectfully, is one of our greatest breakthroughs. The civilizing influence of this punctuation aid derives partly from its odd shape, the shape of mosquito larvae and sea horses: close inspection reveals the implied high culture of its asymmetrical tapering swerve, so distinctly an advantage over the more rustic period.” –Nicholson Baker
The punctuation error that seems to occur most often in the hundreds of manuscripts crossing my desk each year is misuse of the comma. It is important to learn when to use and when not to use commas. To make matters worse, The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Handbook, and most grammar books list different rules. Most Christian publishers have their own style sheets, but they basically follow The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the standard in the book publishing industry. Since it is costly, I suggest you buy Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to help you with grammar, punctuation, and word usage. First copyrighted in 1935, this little 92-page book is packed with all the basics. It can be purchased inexpensively at any secular or on-line bookstore.
Here are my last three suggested endings for articles, stories, or book chapters. I have given examples of each type of ending from chapters in my own books.
- The Straight Statement Close – This editorial close consists of a few sentences or a final thought in the author’s own words.
“I needed to allow others to be themselves. When I dated someone, I tried to accept him for who he was—not for who I wanted him to be. Through this time, I always felt God had someone special planned for me. When I was ready, and my ‘Mr. Perfect’ was ready, God would allow us to meet” (“Turning Frogs into Princes,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers).
- The Stinger – This unexpected conclusion provides an ending that startles, surprises, or shocks.
“Elbows jabbed their ribs; feet tangled with theirs; the unrelenting mob moved on until they came to the place where the old man lay. Bending down, they touched the old man’s arm, now grown cold. They were too late” (“Too Little, Too Late,” Potpourri of Praise).
- The Word of Advice Close – This warning or word of advice points a verbal finger at the reader.
“Loving too much leaves us open to the danger of being hurt, but loving too little can cause us to forget how to love and forget how to live” (“Loving Too Little, Loving Too Much,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers).
Whatever ending you chose, give your article or story a solid conclusion. Don’t just let your story die. Provide the readers with food for thought that they can digest and use in their own lives to help others and themselves move closer to the Lord.
Here are seven through nine of my twelve suggested endings. I have given examples of each type of ending from chapters in my own books.
- The Anecdotal Ending – You can either end with an anecdote or use the split-anecdote technique in which you start the anecdote in the lead (or the middle somewhere) and complete it in the closing.
“Looking back over the past years, I never dreamed my life would take the path it has. When all I had to hold onto was a thread linking me to God, I learned to step out in faith and to take risks. If I had not been forced to earn a living, I never would have developed my current programs and ministries. After six years of being a single parent, I am now blessed with a supportive husband and a thriving business (“A Thousand Ways,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers).
- The Natural Close – Let your story end naturally. You’ve told your story. Stop.
“When Mobin visits foreign cities, as he was doing that day in the Maldive Islands, he still tells people, ‘I collect telephone directories. Do you have one I can take home with me?'” (“Telephone Directories,” Potpourri of Praise).
- The Summary Close – This ending attempts to cover the highlights of the story or to tie up all the loose ends.
“How wrong my first impression had been. I was aware that God planned that therapeutic evening. He knew I would run out of wood, and although I hadn’t specifically asked Him for more, He provided anyhow” (“A Surprise Encounter,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers).
Here are four through six of my twelve suggested endings for articles, stories, or book chapters. I have given examples of each type of ending from chapters in my own books.
- The Play on Words – Sometimes alliteration, a slogan, or a catchy phrase sticks the longest with the reader.
“Pastor Ananda’s burden for his flock, however heavy, is carried with joy and compassion. It fits him well. Each of us has our own divinely designed yoke—our own job to do. Suddenly I felt a renewed strength to wear the yoke God has fashioned for me” (“Pastor Ananda” Potpourri of Praise).
- The Quote Close – Use a quote taken from a subject, history, or other source of quotations to add finality to the article.
“Angelic flames of light and heavenly choirs, accompanied by celestial harps and trumpets, turned a scene of earthly tragedy into a scene of heavenly triumph. From what they saw that day, and from ‘God’s Carvings’, the Aucas learned what the Psalmist wrote: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15, “Dawa’s Story,” Potpourri of Praise).
- The Add-On – This close can make a point never made in the story—a shocker or something that seems natural for making your final point.
“As we walked toward the refreshment table together, I realized that my lack of forgiveness had cost us both a great price” (“Forget and Forgive,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers).
Next to your beginning, your ending is the most important part of your article or story. This is also true in writing books. When your readers get to an end of a chapter, you do not want them to place a bookmark in and lay down the book without a desire to pick it up again. I have a shelf full of books with bookmarks stuck in them—books I have never finished because they didn’t hold my interest at the end of their chapters. I don’t want my books sitting on other people’s shelves unread.
Here are the first three of my twelve suggested endings. I have given examples of each type of ending from chapters in my own books.
- The Lead Replay – This is a duplication or a rewrite of the lead sentence or paragraph or a restatement of the lead’s theme.
“With the Lord leading the way, FEBC expands its ministry to move to the future as it lifts its eyes beyond the horizon” (Eyes Beyond the Horizon, Thomas Nelson).
- The Proximity Close – Tap the material immediately preceding your final paragraph for a closing.
“Next time you are in a church, look carefully at the stained glass windows. Picture yourself as part of His magnificent stained glass window. Watch the sun piercing through each unique piece of glass. Notice how many shapes and sizes are necessary to form the whole.
Remember that the Master Craftsman started with one—one piece of fractured glass. What can we accomplish for His glory if we, too, start with one?” (You Start with One, Thomas Nelson).
- The Restatement of Purpose – Occasionally, a vivid and colorful restatement of the article’s purpose makes an effective close.
“God teaches us to pray specifically. He knew that car was important to Richard’s education, so He spared it. With what took place, I learned an important lesson: When things look bleakest, God is there, showing His presence in the smallest details of our lives” (“The Fire,” Rest Stops for Single Mothers, Broadman & Holman).
When Is Your Title Right?
How can you know when your title is right? The acronym “ACE” will help you create a memorable title.
“A” is for accurate. The title must truthfully reveal the focus of the article or book and also fit its tone. You wouldn’t put “Buffalo Bob Bites Bullet” on a serious crime story any more than the President would turn up for a televised press conference in a sweat suit.
“C” is for concise. Five to seven words are a typically good length. Active verbs, specific nouns, and bright adjectives help tighten the message.
“E” is for eye-catching. You have just a few words to convince your readers you can provide what they want. So you appeal to their felt needs, whether that is for information, inspiration, education, or confirmation. One study showed the use of pronouns (“you,” “I,” “they”) and the “how-to” approach made for stronger titles.
Put a lot of thought in a title before sending your manuscript to an editor. The first person you need to impress is at the publishing house, so they will publish your article or book. This concludes the series on titles.