The Elusive Comma (Part 7)

For six sessions we have talked about places where we should use the comma. Now let’s talk about places where the comma may be omitted. A good rule of thumb is to let your ear be the guide. Read your sentences aloud. You will naturally pause in those places that need a comma.

In a series whose elements are all joined by conjunctions, no commas are needed unless the elements are long and pauses are helpful.

Example: Is it by Beethoven or Brahms or Bach? Of course it would not be wrong to say:
Is it by Beethoven, Brahms, or Bach?

When elements in a series involve internal punctuation, or when they are very long and complex, they should be separated by semicolons.

Example: The brown, fuzzy-wuzzy bear; the black and white panda bear; and the snowy-white, fat polar bear were all friends.

When an ampersand is used instead of the word “and,” as in company names, the serial comma is omitted.

Example: Dooey, Soakum & Howe

These examples end our seven sessions on commas.

The Elusive Comma (Part 6)

Other Uses of the Comma

The comma denotes a slight pause. The effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading as the main goal. A comma is used when a slight pause is intended.

A comma usually follows “yes,” “no,” “well,” and the like, at the beginning of a sentence if a slight pause is intended. Likewise, a comma follows an exclamation “oh” or “ah” only if a slight pause is intended.

The abbreviation, “etc.” is both preceded and followed by a comma when it is the final item in the series. Such English equivalents as “and so forth,” “and the like,” are usually treated the same way. Example: Cats, dogs, parrots, etc., must be confined to cages when flying in airplanes.

A comma follows names or words used in direct address as well as in informal correspondence.

Example: Friends, I’m here to tell you an important story.
Example: Dear Mary,

The Elusive Comma (Part 5)

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).

The Elusive Comma (Part 4)

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.)

The Elusive Comma (Part 3)

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?”

The Elusive Comma (Part 1)

“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.

Do I Need an Agent? (Part 2)

Here are some more questions regarding agents:

Where do I find a good agent? Agents as well as editors attend large writers’ conferences looking for new clients. Conferences such as Colorado Christian Writers and Write-to-Publish are excellent places to sit down and actually talk to an agent. It’s important to find an agent who is passionate about what you write. They won’t be able to sell your material to a publishing house if they don’t believe in your project.

How do I know if agents are doing their job? Once you have signed with an agent, they should keep you informed of any activity on your proposals. They should tell you what houses they have sent them to and the responses of those houses. Normally all correspondence between you and your agent as well as your agent and the publishing houses is done by e-mail. Therefore there should not be any upfront costs for you to pay.

How is my agent paid? Your royalty checks will probably be sent directly to your agent. That way they can look over your statements and make sure they are accurate. The agent takes 15%, and sends you a check for the balance. Also when an agent is negotiating a contract for you, they can usually get a better deal than you can. And of course they want the best deal they can get, since they gets 15% of your advance and royalty checks.

If you have a new idea and happen to be at a conference where you can talk to editors or publishers, take advantage of that situation. Keep in mind your agent is representing as many as a hundred clients, and you are only representing you!

Do I Need an Agent? (Part 1)

A question I am frequently asked by friends and customers of my critique service is: Should I get an agent? The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no. I placed 28 books on my own before I obtained an agent. Now I’m not suggesting that you have to do that, but you do want to get an agent who is competent. Here are two questions to consider:

1. When is it time to get an agent? Many people think that getting an agent is the answer to all their problems. However if you don’t have a proven track record— have not published a few books or don’t have a dynamic speaking ministry—it may be hard for you to get a good agent. So it is important to build a good reputation before you seek an agent.

2. How do I know that an agent is good? If an agent shows interest in you, ask him/her for three clients that will recommend him. Also ask for three books his agency has placed that year. If people won’t recommend him and he has not placed books, you don’t want him to represent you! A mediocre or incompetent agent can hurt you more than not having one.

More questions will be discussed in my next blog.

The Elusive Comma (Part 2)

Now let’s look at some basic rules regarding commas:

Independent Clauses

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.