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.
- 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.
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.
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The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition
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