Sure, You Got A’s in English—But Do You Know Where Commas Go?

A few months ago in a conference session, a group of novelists digressed into good-natured complaints about being copyedited. One writer drew a lot of laughs saying, “I mean, I got A’s in English! I know where the freaking commas go!”* Others nodded in recognition and comradery.

I bit my tongue. I really wanted to say—as gently as possible—I’m sorry dear, but you freaking don’t.

Commas Are Complicated

Teachers don’t always reveal the whole truth, even to their best students, that punctuation isn’t always a right-or-wrong kind of thing, or that different publishers have different comma rules, or that sometimes it’s only by fudging a rule that creative writing can begin to sing.

The fact is, among professional writers, even professors with PhDs in English welcome copyediting of their work. And copyeditors who don’t necessarily have degrees in English (cough cough) nonetheless find plenty of commas to adjust in submitted manuscripts.

Here’s another factor: odds are good that a writer was required as a student to cleave to the rules in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. For decades, it’s been the best-selling grammar and style reference in the US. The good news: even after a century, very little has changed in Elements with regard to using commas. The bad news: even following the latest edition (if you can figure out what it is)† won’t guarantee that a manuscript’s commas will suit all the major publishers.

For instance,

  • Strunk & White (all editions, 1.2) advises adding a comma before “and” in a series (“red, white, and blue”). So does Chicago (per CMOS 6.19). But The Associated Press Stylebook (New York: Associated Press, 2019) does not (323).
  • Strunk & White (all editions, 1.3) requires commas both before and after the abbreviation “etc.” Chicago no longer requires the second comma (per CMOS 6.20). According to AP Stylebook’s Ask the Editor feature, the 2019 Stylebook doesn’t address the issue.
  • Originally, Strunk & White put a comma before “Jr.” and “Sr.” in a name (Hank Williams, Jr.), but the 3rd edition (New York: Macmillan, 1979) took it out (1.3), thus conforming to similar changes over time in Chicago (CMOS 6.43) and AP (158). This means that if you use an older edition of any of these manuals, you’ll be out of step with current recommendations.

Commas Are the Least of It

The above examples only begin to touch on reasons even valedictorians might find the comma rules they got right on the test being challenged by a copyeditor. Once we venture into quotation marks, hyphens, and semicolons—not to mention the galaxy of issues beyond punctuation—it’s easy to see why rules someone mastered in English comp years ago won’t always stand up against a copyeditor with an up-to-date style manual. And if by chance a young scholar also learned to be supremely confident and inflexible in their command of commas and perhaps even to despise or pity those who depart from the rules they happened to learn, well, it’s not hard to predict trouble at copyediting time.

Luckily for creative writers, good copyeditors are familiar with several style guides; they’re up to date on punctuation trends; and they know how to place a comma in those weird and tricky situations that might not have made it into the textbooks.‡ What’s more, experienced copyeditors understand the expressive power that commas pack by their presence or absence (a lesson that textbooks may choose to ignore), and sometimes with a minor tweak here or there, they can help a writer achieve the effect they’re aiming for.

Conclusion

Having your work edited can be a humbling experience. But copyeditors are there to help your commas shine. Next time you’re thinking that a few classes you took years ago armed you with everything you need to publish a professional-looking story, article, novel, or script, rejoice if you have the privilege of having a copyeditor review your work before you submit. You might learn something.


* Apostrophe used in “A’s” for clarity (pace CMOS 7.65).

† In 2010, linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum wrangled the various editions of The Elements of Style into a neat list: “Strunk’s first privately published version of Elements was dated 1918. There followed a little-known commercial version in 1920, two radically rewritten and now forgotten editions coauthored by Edward Tenney in 1934 and 1935, and six editions of the White revision (1959, 1972, 1979, 2000, 2004, and 2009, the last being just a 50th-anniversary reissue of the 2000 edition).” (Pullum, “The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” English Today 102, vol. 26, no. 2 [June 2010], introduction.)

Since then, as various editions entered the public domain, versions have proliferated, including a free audiobook version by LibriVox described as “based on the public-domain text from 1918, which was originally uploaded to Wikibooks and wikified by Wikibooks:User:Lord Emsworth in 2003. In January 2006, Kernigh transwikied the text from Wikibooks:Elements of Style to Wikisource.”

‡ After all, Strunk & White barely scratches the surface on commas in its five or six little pages. For instance, does the serial comma rule apply when “and” is spelled “&”? Where do you put the comma at the end of a bracketed insertion? Do you need a comma between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions that appear next to each other when a dependent clause intervenes between two independent clauses? (Yes, that’s a thing.) You won’t find all the answers in The Elements of Style. But never fear: The Chicago Manual of Style has nearly twenty long pages of comma guidelines covering these issues and many more.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

~ ~ ~

Carol SallerCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at www.carolsaller.com.

Photo: Graduation Cake Guy by David Goehring, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

Order the book
Subscribe online

 

 

6 thoughts on “Sure, You Got A’s in English—But Do You Know Where Commas Go?

    • You could use a comma there. It’s certainly what we were taught in school (comma before direct address) for formal punctuation. To my ear, though, the “freaking” sort of takes the sentence out of the formal register. 🙂 The lack of comma here is similar to its disappearance from email salutations: “Hi Paul” has pretty much replaced “Hi, Paul.” A writer might force the comma because a teacher hammered on it long ago, even though it creates a pause and an unwanted emphasis on the “dear” in this case. (BTW, that was a great question!)

      I’ll confess that I wrote that without giving conscious thought to whether or not I needed a comma, but evidently my (expert) copyeditor agreed with my intuitive choice and chose not to flag it.

    • Years ago, I had an an aspiring student copyeditor — am English major — work on a small manuscript. She returned it with commas seemingly sprinkled here and there. I ask what rule she was using for comma placement. She said she always heard that commas should be placed where one would breathe.

      I said that what she probably heard was that commas are a good place to breathe when reading aloud. “but,” I asked,”What about areader with asthma?”

      • There is some validity to that. One of the functions of punctuation is to aid in pacing; in that respect, commas (along with semicolons, periods, etc.) are analogous to rests in musical notation. A sentence that is economical with commas—particularly if it is a long one—may end up sounding unnatural (sometimes approaching run-on sentence territory), or even confuse the reader. (I know I have often had to go back to re-read sentences because the lack of punctuation suggested a different reading—and then I got to the end, whereupon I had to go back to read it the right way.) Granted, this will be a more important consideration when the text is intended to be read aloud.

        As for a reader with asthma: you would obviously use either the Walken comma or the Shatner comma… 😉

      • “Dear” isn’t a formal term or title or proper name of my addressee; it’s more like the honorifics “ma’am” and “sir,” which I would also lowercase. (CMOS 8.33 supports that.) In past editions, Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names (e.g., section 8.39 of the 15th ed.); the issue isn’t specifically addressed in the 16th or 17th editions.

Comments are closed.