Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fun with Commas

If you ever want to start a fight, follow these steps.

1) Get a bunch of fiction editors in the same room. (That step alone might be enough, but if you want the sparks to really fly...)

2) Give them the text from any outstanding short story published in the last 50 years. Make sure this is a special version of the text, in which all the commas have been deleted.

3) Tell them to figure out, as a group, where commas should be placed.

It's bad enough that major style guides can't agree on such simple questions as whether

Mary, Tricia, and Alice


Mary, Tricia and Alice

is the preferred way to list the names of three characters. (The Wikipedia entry about that extra comma is the best treatment of the subject I've ever seen.) Yet if you read that entry, you'll notice that it discusses the rules with regard to non-fiction prose. That's probably because in fiction, you can get away with anything if you do it well enough.

In all prose, a comma's primary purpose is to help a reader organize (and therefore understand) text. But in fiction, commas have a secondary purpose: to slow the prose down by making the reader pause.

Think about this passage about a 10-year-old girl named Susan:

Susan, breathless, rattled off all the friends she'd made at summer camp: Toni Lisa Kristen Kirsten Debbie Melanie Other Debbie Gwendolyn Sarah a different Susan Beth Barbie (no for real!) Wylie Jamie Maria...

I left out all commas in the example above because I don't want readers to pause; I want them to feel like they're being hit by a firehose. If readers get lost while reading that sentence, good! That's what it would feel like to have a hyper 10-year-old tell you all that. If readers follow the first few names then skim the rest and move on to the next sentence of substance, good! That's what most adult listeners would do after the third or fourth name—tune the speaker out and wait for real substance to resume. By taking out the commas, I make reading the text more like hearing "young Susan" speak, and instead of feeling like you're reading, you feel like the story is happening to you. (At least I hope you do.)

In fiction, a comma's secondary purpose can conflict with its more universal purpose, and that's where the arguments start. Consider this sentence, and presume it's part of a short story:

So after the party we went to Mike's house.

Should that sentence have commas? If so, where?

My answer is, wherever you want the reader to pause.

If you want the sentence to seem fast, maybe even a bit rushed and poorly organized, then leave the commas out. If the writer doesn't want to have that effect on the reader—if the writer wants the reader to ignore punctuation and focus on the factual meaning of the words—then I say put them in, because readers won't pay much attention to punctuation that does what they're expecting

What if you, the editor, aren't sure which works better, and you don't know what the writer wants? You can always ask the writer, but you can also examine the surrounding prose. If that prose is written conventionally, the commas go in. If it is not, and the author is breaking traditional rules to achieve a specific effect, I'd probably leave them out, even if the writer's submitted draft includes them. 

How do you handle problems like this? 


  1. I just got done looking over the edits for a story that's coming out in January/February's issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He really took a machete to my commas. None of them were incorrect, per se; he just seemed to prefer a more streamlined style. Fine by me; I'm not getting into any arguments over a comma (except in one case).

    Apart from that, I have a hard time analyzing my grammar and punctuation processes. I'm from the last generation whose schoolteachers made us diagram endless sentences and do endless punctuation exercises, and I internalized it so well that my grammar, though usually quite correct even in first draft, is completely intuitive, and I have a lot of trouble explaining *why* something is correct.

    The one sentence I insisted on discussing was this:

    "The street's usually empty--we're the only storefront on our side that isn't boarded up, and most of our business arrives on foot--so that robin's-egg-colored eyesore should have stood out like a neon sign."

    The editor wanted to remove the comma in between "up" and "and", to streamline that part between the dashes. I felt that leaving out the comma made it seem like the second clause ("most of our business arrives on foot") is a consequence of, or bears some other relationship to, the first ("we're the only storefront that isn't boarded up"), which isn't true and makes little sense. I thought that separating them with a comma made them sort of "parallel", reinforcing the idea that each clause represents a particular, independent reason why the street is empty of cars.

    I can't say why I think that's correct, and maybe it isn't. The editor let me have it my way, anyway...



  2. Desmond:

    I'd want a comma between that "up" and "and" too. Another argument for it is that without the comma, that's a long phrase to read without a pause. But like I said, editors rarely agree on issues like these.

    Congrats on the F&SF sale, by the way.

    1. Good point. In fact, strictly speaking, that aside may be too long to put between dashes in the first place. But the narrator's manner of speech is just idiosyncratic enough that something like that doesn't really stand out.

      Thanks for the kind words. Finally made it to the show! I suppose it doesn't *quite* mean what it did years back when the readership was so much higher, but it's still quite a nice benchmark in my career.

      [It's also a nice reassurance that a magazine like F&SF, which like the other digests pretty obviously draws from a stable of regulars (I like Robert Reed as much as the next guy, but come on...) really *does* buy out of the slush once in a while. And is willing to give over a decent-sized chunk of the issue to an unknown--my piece is about 13000 words.]